Venezuela is a spectacularly beautiful country, with spectacularly awful leadership. I saw this firsthand last summer when I spent two weeks traveling from Caracas to Canaima National Park. Caracas remains a mystery, as I was warned not to leave the hotel — a warning I heeded because the city is one of the most violent and dangerous in the world. (In 2012, there were 3,500 murders in Caracas. New York City, with a population four times greater, had only 414 murders.) Caracas is also the scene of a distinctly Latin American crime innovation, the “express kidnapping.” Even the Mexican ambassador to Venezuela got kidnapped last year.
Canaima National Park, located in the Southeast corner of the country, is a different story. It was mostly safe from crime, but not from incompetence. For months, the region was plagued by fuel shortages and power outages. Venezuela has enormous petroleum reserves. Nonetheless, the dug-out canoes that bring those tourists brave enough to visit Angel Falls often did not have adequate fuel. State indifference or neglect was a daily issue.
While touring, it was impossible to avoid Hugo Chávez, whose picture was on the wall at the airport or atop a pole in the town square. His medals were impressive, and his chubby cheeks and broad smile rendered him practically cuddly. My local guides adored him. Of course, one of my guides was a 9-11 truther and another thought the inventor Nikola Tesla had been murdered by evil industrialists intent on protecting their intellectual property. So it was not surprising when all kinds of conspiracies emerged as Mr. Chávez was on his last legs. But of course Mr. Chávez’ supporters would insist he had been poisoned! But of course, there’d be a sacrificial expulsion (or two) of American diplomats! When something bad happens to someone so much larger than life, it has to be conspiracy and not a boring case of cancer.
Mr. Chávez was Venezuela’s greatest national resource when it came to fiction and fantasy. He was creative and romantic about reimagining his country and his “Bolivarianism” garnered deep, sometimes mystical support from an impoverished underclass that felt excluded and victimized by his predecessors in government and by the business elite. And his knack for public relations was impressive. Mr. Chavez gave his three millionth Twitter follower a brand new house. In 2009 he renamed Angel Falls “Kerepakupai-Meru,” in honor of the indigenous Pemon Indians who first prayed to the falls. In 2005 he teamed up with Joe Kennedy to bring Venezuelan heating oil to America’s poor at a 40% discount. Last year, he misled his own people regarding the extent of his pelvic cancer. Only a few months prior to the election, he seemed too sick to win, let alone to campaign. Nonetheless, voter turnout was a record 80% and he received 1.5 million more votes than his healthy 40-year-old opponent, Henrique Capriles. As recently as last week, a majority of Venezuelans thought Mr. Chávez would recover and return to the job.
In the runup to the election, the government undertook a frenetic spending spree, building homes for the poor and providing pensions to the elderly, growing the economy by 5.5%. In 2012, the stock market surged by almost 300%, making it the top market for the year. However, less than a month ago, the government devalued the bolivar by more than 30%, the second such major devaluation in only three years. Inflation grew more than 20% last year, and there’s a robust black market for American dollars and local oil. To follow Mr. Chávez’s policies and their impact on the economy required Dramamine.
Of course, to observe Mr. Chávez’s fondness for despots was to wonder about the entire country. The guy delighted in sending oil to Syria in support of Assad. He mourned the loss of Gaddafi. He visited with Ahmadinejad in Caracas and also Tehran, as if one encounter wouldn’t suffice. Will his successor show a similar coziness for these dreadful guys? Let’s hope not. The Venezuelans I met – even those the most enthusiastic about Mr. Chávez — all wanted to visit me in New York.