.

We landed at the Caracas airport on February 12th. My colleagues and I were reminded many times before our departure from Los Angeles that Caracas is considered the most dangerous city in the world, with a homicide rate of more than 100 deaths per 100,000 residents. Unfortunately, the government does not publish official records when it casts the country in a negative light. Venezuela today is similar to what Colombia was in the 80s and 90s—a dangerous country draped with insecurity. It seems now like the tables have turned quite. So our strategy was as such: bunker down, speak Spanish at all times, do our business, and leave fast.

Upon arrival, we employed a private chauffeur accompanied by a private security to escort us from the airport to our hotel. You cannot take any chances in Caracas, especially if your flight arrives half past midnight. Interesting enough, on the drive to the hotel I was both entertained and irritated by the abundance of political propaganda billboards showcasing El Comandante Hugo Chavez, street paintings of Simon Bolivar, and an excess of graffiti and signs championing the Socialist Bolivarian Revolution and the fight against the Imperial invaders, i.e., the USA. Now I know what political manipulation looks like first hand; a very disturbing spectacle.

For the first few hours while in Caracas, all was quiet. For a few moments I thought it might turn out to be a pleasant trip. But by mid-afternoon things changed dramatically. Caracas erupted.

Apparently February 12th is also Youth Day in Venezuela, commemorating the teenage soldiers who fought for Venezuelan Independence in the Battle of La Victoria (The Battle of Victory) against the Spanish Empire. Also, February 12, 2014 happened to be the bicentennial anniversary, thus creating a stage for the Venezuelan youth to finally declare enough is enough; protesting against crime, insecurity, inflation, unemployment, lack of goods such as toilet paper, the gross violations against freedom of speech, manipulation, lack of political transparency, corruption, repression, election fraud, nepotism, insane currency volatility, Cuban style socialism—the list goes on and on and on.

During the protests, three students died on February 12th. This marked the beginning of the ongoing battle between the Chavez-Maduro socialist model and the opposition. At my hotel, Venezuelans were anxiously glued to their phones in search of the latest news. I heard about the absence of real news in Venezuela’s television broadcast, but I was not prepared to witness what I saw; the concept of television news was almost farcical. Three students died and all the channels were broadcasting the good Hugo Chavez had done in the slums, while a couple of hours ago Caracas was mired in protests and violence. And then in the late evening, most of the channels covered a military parade honoring the February 12 battle. It made me wonder if I was transported to a Latino version of George Orwell’s 1984. Hugo Chavez saw private television channels as a threat against his power. So he nationalized them and ousted the top management only to replace them with people sympathetic to his political ideals (see state-owned oil company PDVSA). Freedom of the press is a façade in Venezuela; it does not exist.

As a result, Venezuelans resort to social media to get their news. While in the U.S. we scroll social media pages to view pictures, dorky videos, and what else, in Venezuela it is the only medium to get objective and real time news. Twitter is CNN, Facebook is Fox News, WhatsApp is your local news channel, and text messaging is like AM radio. Bizarre, but fascinating at the same time.

Unfortunately, the Venezuelan government is aware of that as well. By 9:00 pm local time on February 12th, Twitter pictures were momentarily unavailable, and the only channel that was reporting the student protest objectively was Colombian channel NTN24, which was predictably taken off the air. As of today, Twitter pictures can be viewed, but the Colombian channel NTN24 is still not being broadcasted in Venezuela. In addition, President Maduro accused CNN of propaganda and has told the station to leave. Four journalists from CNN have had their press passes revoked. Three American diplomats were expelled from Venezuela on accusations of conspiracy against the Venezuelan government.

While at the hotel, the personnel constantly urged us not to leave the premises. We are considered an easy target because we are Americans, and that in itself can cast immediate radar on our back, due to the notion that the U.S. is the presupposed enemy of the Bolivarian Socialist Revolution. It was not the protesters that we had to worry about; it is more so the thugs that are commissioned by the government. I witnessed many of these thugs standing in the flatbeds of pick-up trucks; one truck had two men with no apparent government uniform with machine guns on their backs. Seeing that reinforced the intimidation tactics used by the government.

Let’s take a look at the Cuban Socialist experiment and what so far has produced in Venezuela. First of all, the exchange rate is out of control. According to official figures, $1 can be exchanged for 8 bolivares (the Venezuelan currency). The Venezuelans on the street have their own exchange rate that is far off from the official exchange rate. On February 12th, I was able to receive 80 bolivares for $1, by the time I left (seven days later), I was being offered 85 bolivares for $1, a six percent increase—that is what you call uncontrollable inflation.

Venezuela, like Argentina, is one of the few places in the world where you can buy a car today and sell it for a profit a year from now. How? Inflation causes prices to soar rapidly. Instead of depositing money in a savings account or a mutual fund, Venezuelans buy cars as investments. One caveat: good luck finding a new car. I drove to more than five dealerships; four had no cars on display. The one that did had only four cars. Speaking of inflation, the unofficial inflation rate (in Venezuela, anything that is unofficial is more or less a reflection of the truth, and anything that is official is without a doubt far from reality) is 56 percent. In the U.S. inflation has been tempered in the last few years to 2 percent or less—just imagine what would happen to financial markets if inflation reached 10 percent. In Venezuela, currently the country is running out of American dollars, which is spiraling the economy out of control.

At my hotel, which caters to businesses, conferences, and social events, they ran out of beer, which apparently happens all the time. According to one of my Venezuelan contacts, there was a beer run during the Christmas holidays where domestic and imported beers were scarce, creating something similar to the Prohibition era where Venezuelan citizens would buy beer from bootleggers for a premium price. Also, the news about the lack of toilet paper is true. I saw massive lines that wrapped around a block; people queuing to enter the grocery store to buy basic goods. At the mall, some stores had healthy inventories; others had virtually nothing to sell. If you do not have dollars, how are you going to import goods? I was told by a contact that GE has an excess of bolivares, however, they cannot exchange them to dollars. So they are investing in Venezuelan real estate—in essence, betting on a different future.

We have already seen this movie. Soviet Union communism collapsed under its own tutelage, Mao Zedong’s communism deviated from Marxism and embraced capitalism, and Cuban style socialism has kept Cuba 60 years behind, making them a bona fide failed state. These political blind faith socialist experiments did not work before; they will not work today; and, they will not have success in the future. President Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution are fighting against history, precedence, patterns, and statistics. It is a suicide battle, with Venezuelans citizens affected the most.

Right now, the movie in Venezuela is closely reaching its climax. The situation escalated when Leopoldo Lopez, the architect of the Youth Day protests, turned himself in to Venezuelan authorities on February 18th. President Maduro views Mr. Lopez as a threat; Mr. Leopoldo Lopez is a Harvard-educated leader and the former mayor of Chacao, an upper-middle class district in East Caracas. President Maduro, on the other hand, used to be a bus driver and is now President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Hugo Chavez handpicked President Maduro. Years ago, Maduro was sent to Cuba for two years of training; brainwashed by the Castro regime on anti-Americanism and centralized socialism. That is essentially his resume.

Hours after the initial protests of February 12th, the government issued an arrest warrant against Leopoldo Lopez, accusing him of inciting violence and being responsible for the students' death. Lopez made a brave and courageous decision, handing himself over to the police despite being innocent. Currently, Lopez is jailed, waiting to hear his official charges. Sadly for Lopez, it appears as if he is destined to become another victim of a Kafkaesque rule of law, charged without evidence.

Every day during my stay in Caracas, there were protests. Rumors swirled that a coup d’ etat was on the horizon; some even said it was hours away. It did not happen and I think it is unlikely that it will happen soon. As of today, the student protesters are not relenting, they still gather in masses chanting for change. Venezuela’s opposition does not want the country to be isolated and quasi-governed under the web of Cuba. Ukraine’s protestors fought against Russian influence and their desire to be more aligned with the West and the European Union. On opposite sides of the globe, both countries are fighting similar battles, demanding change.

Venezuelans are fighting a battle for human rights: freedom of speech, freedom of press, security, fair elections, and most importantly, the right to opportunity. But Latin American nations are not proactive in their support towards the protesters, excluding former Colombian President Uribe; the other leaders have been more or less silent. Where is Brazil, the apparent leader of the Latin American region? Argentina and Ecuador have made their position clear: full support in favor of President Maduro—no surprise there. How about the United States? Secretary of State John Kerry has declared that he and the administration are very concerned, but to what extent?

Venezuelans around the world have appeared to unite, with mini-protests in Medellin, Bogota, Barcelona, Madrid, Miami, Los Angeles, Tenerife, Chicago, Beirut, San Diego, Montevideo, Sydney, and Dubai. It is not enough. Ukrainian protesters were brave enough and appear to have changed the political powers by force and resilience, but it came at a large cost—at least 100 people died in the clashes between the protesters and the government forces. Currently in Venezuela ten protesters have died, and more than a hundred have been injured. Will more blood have to be shed? It seems when it comes to real change, diplomacy and communication without much world pressure are ineffective tools. But if there was more international support, more pressure from not only journalists, academics, politicians, analysts, but pressure and concern from all people, then maybe Venezuela could have a fighting chance for change. The path to change is bloody and harsh, but Venezuela is not alone.

Oscar Montealegre is a Los Angeles-based Diplomatic Courier Contributor specializing in Latin American markets, finance, economics, and geopolitics. He holds an MA in International Relations, a BA in Journalism, and a Certificate in International Trade and Commerce.

Photo: andresAzp (cc).

About
Oscar Montealegre
:
Oscar Montealaegre is Diplomatic Courier’s Latin America Correspondent and the Founder of Kensington Eagle, an investment firm that specializes in private companies and real estate in the U.S. and Colombia.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Looking Over My Shoulder: An American's Observations During the Venezuelan Protests

February 25, 2014

We landed at the Caracas airport on February 12th. My colleagues and I were reminded many times before our departure from Los Angeles that Caracas is considered the most dangerous city in the world, with a homicide rate of more than 100 deaths per 100,000 residents. Unfortunately, the government does not publish official records when it casts the country in a negative light. Venezuela today is similar to what Colombia was in the 80s and 90s—a dangerous country draped with insecurity. It seems now like the tables have turned quite. So our strategy was as such: bunker down, speak Spanish at all times, do our business, and leave fast.

Upon arrival, we employed a private chauffeur accompanied by a private security to escort us from the airport to our hotel. You cannot take any chances in Caracas, especially if your flight arrives half past midnight. Interesting enough, on the drive to the hotel I was both entertained and irritated by the abundance of political propaganda billboards showcasing El Comandante Hugo Chavez, street paintings of Simon Bolivar, and an excess of graffiti and signs championing the Socialist Bolivarian Revolution and the fight against the Imperial invaders, i.e., the USA. Now I know what political manipulation looks like first hand; a very disturbing spectacle.

For the first few hours while in Caracas, all was quiet. For a few moments I thought it might turn out to be a pleasant trip. But by mid-afternoon things changed dramatically. Caracas erupted.

Apparently February 12th is also Youth Day in Venezuela, commemorating the teenage soldiers who fought for Venezuelan Independence in the Battle of La Victoria (The Battle of Victory) against the Spanish Empire. Also, February 12, 2014 happened to be the bicentennial anniversary, thus creating a stage for the Venezuelan youth to finally declare enough is enough; protesting against crime, insecurity, inflation, unemployment, lack of goods such as toilet paper, the gross violations against freedom of speech, manipulation, lack of political transparency, corruption, repression, election fraud, nepotism, insane currency volatility, Cuban style socialism—the list goes on and on and on.

During the protests, three students died on February 12th. This marked the beginning of the ongoing battle between the Chavez-Maduro socialist model and the opposition. At my hotel, Venezuelans were anxiously glued to their phones in search of the latest news. I heard about the absence of real news in Venezuela’s television broadcast, but I was not prepared to witness what I saw; the concept of television news was almost farcical. Three students died and all the channels were broadcasting the good Hugo Chavez had done in the slums, while a couple of hours ago Caracas was mired in protests and violence. And then in the late evening, most of the channels covered a military parade honoring the February 12 battle. It made me wonder if I was transported to a Latino version of George Orwell’s 1984. Hugo Chavez saw private television channels as a threat against his power. So he nationalized them and ousted the top management only to replace them with people sympathetic to his political ideals (see state-owned oil company PDVSA). Freedom of the press is a façade in Venezuela; it does not exist.

As a result, Venezuelans resort to social media to get their news. While in the U.S. we scroll social media pages to view pictures, dorky videos, and what else, in Venezuela it is the only medium to get objective and real time news. Twitter is CNN, Facebook is Fox News, WhatsApp is your local news channel, and text messaging is like AM radio. Bizarre, but fascinating at the same time.

Unfortunately, the Venezuelan government is aware of that as well. By 9:00 pm local time on February 12th, Twitter pictures were momentarily unavailable, and the only channel that was reporting the student protest objectively was Colombian channel NTN24, which was predictably taken off the air. As of today, Twitter pictures can be viewed, but the Colombian channel NTN24 is still not being broadcasted in Venezuela. In addition, President Maduro accused CNN of propaganda and has told the station to leave. Four journalists from CNN have had their press passes revoked. Three American diplomats were expelled from Venezuela on accusations of conspiracy against the Venezuelan government.

While at the hotel, the personnel constantly urged us not to leave the premises. We are considered an easy target because we are Americans, and that in itself can cast immediate radar on our back, due to the notion that the U.S. is the presupposed enemy of the Bolivarian Socialist Revolution. It was not the protesters that we had to worry about; it is more so the thugs that are commissioned by the government. I witnessed many of these thugs standing in the flatbeds of pick-up trucks; one truck had two men with no apparent government uniform with machine guns on their backs. Seeing that reinforced the intimidation tactics used by the government.

Let’s take a look at the Cuban Socialist experiment and what so far has produced in Venezuela. First of all, the exchange rate is out of control. According to official figures, $1 can be exchanged for 8 bolivares (the Venezuelan currency). The Venezuelans on the street have their own exchange rate that is far off from the official exchange rate. On February 12th, I was able to receive 80 bolivares for $1, by the time I left (seven days later), I was being offered 85 bolivares for $1, a six percent increase—that is what you call uncontrollable inflation.

Venezuela, like Argentina, is one of the few places in the world where you can buy a car today and sell it for a profit a year from now. How? Inflation causes prices to soar rapidly. Instead of depositing money in a savings account or a mutual fund, Venezuelans buy cars as investments. One caveat: good luck finding a new car. I drove to more than five dealerships; four had no cars on display. The one that did had only four cars. Speaking of inflation, the unofficial inflation rate (in Venezuela, anything that is unofficial is more or less a reflection of the truth, and anything that is official is without a doubt far from reality) is 56 percent. In the U.S. inflation has been tempered in the last few years to 2 percent or less—just imagine what would happen to financial markets if inflation reached 10 percent. In Venezuela, currently the country is running out of American dollars, which is spiraling the economy out of control.

At my hotel, which caters to businesses, conferences, and social events, they ran out of beer, which apparently happens all the time. According to one of my Venezuelan contacts, there was a beer run during the Christmas holidays where domestic and imported beers were scarce, creating something similar to the Prohibition era where Venezuelan citizens would buy beer from bootleggers for a premium price. Also, the news about the lack of toilet paper is true. I saw massive lines that wrapped around a block; people queuing to enter the grocery store to buy basic goods. At the mall, some stores had healthy inventories; others had virtually nothing to sell. If you do not have dollars, how are you going to import goods? I was told by a contact that GE has an excess of bolivares, however, they cannot exchange them to dollars. So they are investing in Venezuelan real estate—in essence, betting on a different future.

We have already seen this movie. Soviet Union communism collapsed under its own tutelage, Mao Zedong’s communism deviated from Marxism and embraced capitalism, and Cuban style socialism has kept Cuba 60 years behind, making them a bona fide failed state. These political blind faith socialist experiments did not work before; they will not work today; and, they will not have success in the future. President Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution are fighting against history, precedence, patterns, and statistics. It is a suicide battle, with Venezuelans citizens affected the most.

Right now, the movie in Venezuela is closely reaching its climax. The situation escalated when Leopoldo Lopez, the architect of the Youth Day protests, turned himself in to Venezuelan authorities on February 18th. President Maduro views Mr. Lopez as a threat; Mr. Leopoldo Lopez is a Harvard-educated leader and the former mayor of Chacao, an upper-middle class district in East Caracas. President Maduro, on the other hand, used to be a bus driver and is now President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Hugo Chavez handpicked President Maduro. Years ago, Maduro was sent to Cuba for two years of training; brainwashed by the Castro regime on anti-Americanism and centralized socialism. That is essentially his resume.

Hours after the initial protests of February 12th, the government issued an arrest warrant against Leopoldo Lopez, accusing him of inciting violence and being responsible for the students' death. Lopez made a brave and courageous decision, handing himself over to the police despite being innocent. Currently, Lopez is jailed, waiting to hear his official charges. Sadly for Lopez, it appears as if he is destined to become another victim of a Kafkaesque rule of law, charged without evidence.

Every day during my stay in Caracas, there were protests. Rumors swirled that a coup d’ etat was on the horizon; some even said it was hours away. It did not happen and I think it is unlikely that it will happen soon. As of today, the student protesters are not relenting, they still gather in masses chanting for change. Venezuela’s opposition does not want the country to be isolated and quasi-governed under the web of Cuba. Ukraine’s protestors fought against Russian influence and their desire to be more aligned with the West and the European Union. On opposite sides of the globe, both countries are fighting similar battles, demanding change.

Venezuelans are fighting a battle for human rights: freedom of speech, freedom of press, security, fair elections, and most importantly, the right to opportunity. But Latin American nations are not proactive in their support towards the protesters, excluding former Colombian President Uribe; the other leaders have been more or less silent. Where is Brazil, the apparent leader of the Latin American region? Argentina and Ecuador have made their position clear: full support in favor of President Maduro—no surprise there. How about the United States? Secretary of State John Kerry has declared that he and the administration are very concerned, but to what extent?

Venezuelans around the world have appeared to unite, with mini-protests in Medellin, Bogota, Barcelona, Madrid, Miami, Los Angeles, Tenerife, Chicago, Beirut, San Diego, Montevideo, Sydney, and Dubai. It is not enough. Ukrainian protesters were brave enough and appear to have changed the political powers by force and resilience, but it came at a large cost—at least 100 people died in the clashes between the protesters and the government forces. Currently in Venezuela ten protesters have died, and more than a hundred have been injured. Will more blood have to be shed? It seems when it comes to real change, diplomacy and communication without much world pressure are ineffective tools. But if there was more international support, more pressure from not only journalists, academics, politicians, analysts, but pressure and concern from all people, then maybe Venezuela could have a fighting chance for change. The path to change is bloody and harsh, but Venezuela is not alone.

Oscar Montealegre is a Los Angeles-based Diplomatic Courier Contributor specializing in Latin American markets, finance, economics, and geopolitics. He holds an MA in International Relations, a BA in Journalism, and a Certificate in International Trade and Commerce.

Photo: andresAzp (cc).

About
Oscar Montealegre
:
Oscar Montealaegre is Diplomatic Courier’s Latin America Correspondent and the Founder of Kensington Eagle, an investment firm that specializes in private companies and real estate in the U.S. and Colombia.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.