BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
I have promised my wife, who was born in Venezuela, that I’ll retire out there with her.
People ask me what the country is like. And this is what I tell them:
When you awake out on the ranch – the finca – a waft of sweet mango drifts in from the lines of mango trees on the lawns beside the house. You pull open the curtains to be greeted by the bluest sky in the big wide world while a gentle early morning breeze caresses the palms and flora, swishing your way the honeyed scents of tropical flowers. Blown with the mango, it’s a celestial nosegay.
Humming birds dance on maracas and orchids, while swaying bird-of-paradise flowers loom over them; impressive and animated. You step outside, accompanied by our loyal Dobermann Hayek, and reach for some mangoes, which you slice open with a machete to de-stone and take back inside to deposit in the juicer. Blended with milk and ice they give you the perfect start to the day. You sip the resultant mango smoothie with your wife and babies on the lush lawn and look as far as you can possibly see out and down from our hill onto the all-day drama that is the savanna with its curling, shimmering river and wildlife all around. A capybara scampers in the distance while black-headed parrots squawk overhead. This is Venezuela.
The towns are mainly Spanish colonial left-overs around which modern villas and flats have risen. You visit the towns to stock up on certain provisions like medications and nappies. Or sometimes to exchange, for American dollars, gold flakes and dust panned in nearby streams, that you’ve collected from locals for bolivars (no point in possessing devaluing bolivars except in the deep countryside where currency rates matter very little).
You inevitably stop in a street café for a lemonade just to quench your thirst in the concrete cauldron of heat. You can sit there for ten minutes during which time twenty supermodels will walk past – las super-guapas – walking as if they are on a cat-walk, parading the latest fashions and looks; fluttering eyelashes. These are the parrots – the gorgeous and technicolour goddesses, who never stop talking, or pretending to talk, on their cellphones in their Venezuelan-Spanish chirp.
Then, as you sip your cool lemonade, the unmistakable sound of gunfire down the street suddenly puts you and your family on edge. Your hand automatically darts for your Glock (the family pistol which, hoping for precision, we christened Ian after a hotshot Brit sniper we know). Your wife and kids duck down behind a wall.
A drug dealer has killed some poor soul’s husband. She has chased after them and the next shot has slain her young son too. Even though the town you are in has a population no larger than Arundel, its local newspaper is replete each week with the graphic images of corpses. All riddled with bullets or carved open by fatal machete wounds. Even some children carry guns here and will kill you for your wallet, so you must be armed always in the conurbations. You know thieves will kill your family just for your vehicle, even if you ride into town on a Chinese motorbike worth no more than a second-hand laptop.
The poor wife’s wails echo in your brain. Forever.
27,875 killings occurred last year in Venezuela. We have lost friends. We lost Monica Spear a few years back (main picture) who was with my wife in Miss Venezuela – shot dead on a road at night in Zulia along with her British husband Tom while her four-year-old daughter Maya cowered with a bullet in her leg on the back seat of their car; all alone in the darkness.
We lost our lovely friend Marjorit Rodulfo this year in Puerto Ordaz – slain by a bullet in the stomach, after leaving Mass no less, again for not handing over the keys to her car. Valiant Marjorit (below) called her husband and young son to say goodbye as she bled to death in the street. We’ve lost other friends and family to the increasing violence too.
As you swiftly discard the remains of your lemonade and pay the waiter, you see a crowd rush over to a refuse truck that has just picked up the trash from a nearby hotel and parked on the main avenida. The shootings are distant history now to them even though they occurred just minutes ago. Some of the crowd eat straight out of it – they have not eaten for many days.
Emaciated babies hang on to their mothers’ shoulders. With hospitals suffering a catastrophic lack of supplies, the country’s babies are dying at a rate higher than Syria’s. In the first five months of this year 4,074 babies in Venezuela died before reaching a year, up 18.5% from the period last year and more than 50% from that period of 2012. Babies are increasingly born dead and dumped on the basureras – the huge rubbish tips that have accumulated in the Chavez and Maduro years on the outskirts of towns and shanties (known as barrios). Or they’re born as Zika babies and die soon after because nobody can afford to care.
You have time to pause to think when you reach back to the calmness of the finca – it’s an achievement just getting home alive. Venezuela is one of the richest countries on earth, you think. Its oil reserves are greater than Saudi Arabia’s, albeit producing oil that needs more refining. Venezuela’s population could swing in their hammocks and do nothing – living opportunely off the country’s oil revenues, which immigrants would happily manage. If only there were stability and peace. A sane government.
It’s not the oil price killing Venezuela as blinkered Corbynistas will have you believe. It’s the Chavista government, which only stays in power by clamping down on the opposition majority by jailing their politicians and crushing their protests with hired thugs and crowds of food-for-hire delinquents. The Chavistas are price-fixing socialists who promised all and delivered it for a while – as most socialists do – until their impracticable policies pulverised the nation’s cash reserves. Now they’re so short themselves they’ve turned into drug traffickers – incompetent Maduro is their former bus-driving Godfather.
Oil companies left. Venezuela’s brightest fled to Miami. The prisons are now run as extortion machines by a prisoner mafia. Supermarkets are empty. Food is scarce, especially in the towns and cities. People kill for food now. Just the other day a man was killed over a plantain in Caracas. Farmers selling their crops in the city mercados need armed guards.
Whose fault is this chaos? people ask.
It’s Chavez’ and now Maduro’s fault, I reply. And it’s Marx’s.
Why retire there if it’s such a hellhole?
I have twenty-five years before I will think about retiring, I answer. Soon enough the starving people will fight and Maduro will be gone, I hope and pray. Paradise may resume.
I light a cigar.
In the distance a jaguar sprints at lightning speed across the savanna and pounces on a turtle. It flips it and rips it open; feasting on its flesh. Vultures soon gather; hoping for some scraps.
This is Venezuela too, I muse, taking a puff.
Never far from Ian.