Travel Diary : Complicated Venezuela
My last stop in South America was in Venezuela. After two months spent in Brazil, I was coming back to a spanish-speaking country. This way, I found it easier to understand the local culture.
The name of Venezuela is today linked to the name of its president Hugo Chavez. His personality and his « revolutionary politic » helped him to gain some popularity... Even if he isn´t really popular everywhere.
To enter and to travelin Venezuela reminded me a little bit of Cuba. Some customs and ways of doing seem to have been influenced by the regime of the brothers Castro.
The country is interesting to visit, even if I have to put some warnings because I think that Venezuela should be visited under some conditions.
Venezuelian flag in Caracas
A «social» politic
To understand the situation inVenezuela, let´s have a closer look to it.
In 1992, th government of Carlos Andres Perez was targeted by two « coups d´Etat » realized by Hugo Chavez. Those ones were missed, while Chavez was already in jail after the first one.Those attacks were probably motivated by a thirst of power but also legitimated by a deep disgust of the current and very corrupted goverment that was there at this time.
Indeed, as in many countries in the Third World, some leaders don´t hesitate to put a big part of the governmental budgets in their pockets. When it is going over a certain point and that the people start to see their daily life getting worse, it happens that revolutionary movements are starting to be organized. Hugo Chavez has been elected by the population, who approved his attempts to get to the government.
His fight and his will for a more equal society can be respected, but this is true that this kind of utopy is very difficult to realize. As in Cuba, some parts of the Chavez´s government are interesting, eventhough some there are some important limits.
Limited international opening
An old Ford car in a street of Ciudad Guayana. It can remain some old vehicles that we can find in Cuba
Thanks to the many mines and petrol extractions, Venezuela can take the luxuary to not be as dependant as others and to say what he thinks to some hypocrite leaders of the western world.
The positives points that I can see here are.
In the same logical to be independant the government of Chavez did some actions that were not very welcoming for the foreigner as :
Embargo on the banks
Indeed, it was almost impossible to make my credit card working in the banks of the country. By chance, I could withdraw some money after more than twenty tries.
In between, I had the possibility to know a little bit more about the money restrictions. The official rate of the venezuelian Bolivar was 4,6 Bolivars for 1 American Dollar. This was the rate that was being used in the banks. If youo want to change money in the non-official rate, you can reach 1 American Dollar for 12 Bolivars... Almost three tims the official rate !
Let´s understand that when you are withdrawing money with the official rate in Venezuela, the governement is taxing you as high as 260%. It doesn´t really help you to make you want to spend money there.
I didn´t have any foreign currency (American Dollar, Brazilian Real or Euro) to change when I entered the country. I finally had to look for another solution to cover my need without being overtaxed.
I finally found a person who had two bank accounts. One in a foreign country (possibly in the United States or in Europe) and one in Venezuela. This person accepted to receive an internet Paypal paiement on his foreign account and then gave me the same amount in Venezuelian Bolivar from his local venezuelian account... With a better rate than the official of course.
Nationalization of the factories
The result is even chocking when you see how low is the price. Near Santa Elena in the south of the country, the super was sold at 0,070 Bolivar for a liter, so 0,006 Euro. To fill up a car tank of around 50 liters, it would cost you around 3,5 Bolivar, so 30 cents of Euros (35 cents of Dollar).
The price of the petrol in Venezuela is incredibly cheap, here a fill up for 2,53 Bolivars (20 centsof Euro)
In Ciudad Guayana, it even happened to me to pay the fill up of a taxi, because the driver had no change.
The communication and the control of the medias
I followed a lot the national channels, listening to the speeches of Hugo Chavez. It appears that the head of the venezuelian government is animated and motivated by the idylic idea of the contruction of an utopia. He is charismatic and knows how to be listened.
In a place of the center of Caracas, the population is watching the national news, seeming to feel very concerned about the talking.
There is no much room for criticizing, neither for the opposition. It is even surely dangerous to do so. In Ciudad Guayana, I had the opportunity to meet a journalist who was taking the risk of saying whatever she was feeling of. By curiosity and because I always like to hear from different sources, I accepted to come to talk about my journey in her talkshow. This gave me the possibility to learn a little bit more about the risks one can take if one takes the freedom to criticize the government of Chavez.
Some years ago, in a tougher repression time, this journalist has to leave the country for a year and to end up in Colombia, because many peopl affiliated to the government were coming to her office during each talkshows, with more than warning advices...
On which concern my talk, I kept myself very far to give any of my personal politic thoughts.
Interviewed during a radioshow in Ciudad Guayana
After having participatedin this talkshow, I can say that indeed the journalist was taking the freedom to say what she was thinking. She didn´t hesitate to highly criticize the government. Also, she succeeded to get in touch with a politic prisonner (apparently detained for his ideas) from his cell in jail.
Unsafety and corruption
The statistics are also talking. Caracas in the third most dangerous city in the world, according to the murdering rank. In 2008, the offical rate was of 130 murders for 100000 inhabitants. Although the non-official sources were closersto 510 murders...
That´s three and a half years that I am listening to people saying that the next place where I am going is incredibly dangerous. With the time, I got used to this kind of warning. I am almost not considering them anymore, prefering using my common sense once I am there instead of being scared and paranoiac.
This time, I didn´t get away with it. For the first time during my journey, since October 2007, my common sense was not enough. The following story really happened to me, as incredible as it can soun :
«It is 9pm and the night already fell down on the capital Caracas. I am with my host of the day. Daniel is venezuelian, I met him thanks to the website of cultural interactions couchsurfing.org. We are getting out at the subway station called Chacaito, which is in the city center. We have 4 or 5 blocks to cross before to arrive to his uncle´s house, where we will spend the night.
We are walking along the main street and we are going on the left at the second crossroad. There is a little office of police with two officers on the entrance of this little street. We are overpassing it. Halfway through this passage, we are seeing a police motorbike arriving in front of us. This one stop as soon as they have us on their sight. Two policemen are getting down this vehicle. Daniel recognizes them from their uniforms and tells me that they belong to the « Policia Metropolitana ».
They are wearing a bulletproof jacket, under what they have the traditional blue police uniform. They are also wearing a helmet and at their feet some very clean black rangers.
The two officers are almost the same size, so a head taller than me and Daniel. Very quickly, they are starting to check our belongings, in a way that makes me think that they may look for a drug trafficant. They also have a look on our identity cards. One of them is taking a closer look to my laptop and my external hardrive. I don´t panick at all because I have already been control hundreds of times during this journey and this one seem just to be another one. They know what they do, so I wait and try to be helpful.
One of the two cops is staring at the cellphone of my friend Daniel. This is also something that I have already seen. However, I find it strange that this same policeman is counting how much money my friend has in his wallet. Daniel has 80 American Dollars and says to the police that those one are belonging to me. Oh yes, I remember now, it is forbidden for a Venezuelian to own foreign currencies without an authorization. Being there and with him legitimates the fact that he has this money.
Then, the two cops take their guns and point at us. I can properly see his silver color weapon pointing on my legs. The other policeman is informing us in spanish, while pointing at the stomacof Danil, that they are currently robbing us.
Then they go towrds their motorbike and I stop Daniel who was trying to pull back the arm of one of the cops. I remind him that we were just being mugged with guns and that they eventually could use their weapons.
Today, I don´t really feel ready to help Caracas to gain a place in the rank of the most murdering cities of the world.
The police attacked and robbed us. I lost my computer and my external hardrive. While Daniel got stolen 80 dollars and his cellphone. The police, who get a weapon to protect the citizens, is using it to attack them. Unbelievable. My common sense didn´t help me at all this time, but how could it be else with such a surprise ?
We are going to the little office of police, so at 50 meters from the previous action. Those one admit to not be abl to help us if we don´t have the immatriculation number of the motorbike. Also, they just don´t really care about our story. They tell us that we are alive, that is the principal...
They finally let us in front of the building of the uncle of Daniel.
His uncle is of course sorry for us. During the conversation that we have during this evening, he will tell us that the exact same story happened to him 4 times... 4 times the police... Confirming that it wasn´t just gangsters with police´s clothes. No, this is really the police that is acting so, completly convered by the judiciary system that don´t do anything to stop them.
We won´t go any further with the police. Who do you want us to accuse ? The police ? It seems to me a little bit difficult to make myself appear as victim in front of the guilties... »
However I don´t want to incriminate the police. Indeed, I can also talk about my first ride in Venezuela that was offered to me by another cop. This one gave me a ride of 700 kilometers between the brazilian border and Ciudad Guayana. The next day, he invited me to his home for coffee and meeting his family.
The problem is just no coming from the job a person is doing but from the incapacity of the government to control unsafety. The bad people are just too free to act so and are in no way feeling in danger while doing this kind of criminal actions. The people with bad intentions have too much power and don´t hesitate to use it with more than doubtful goals.
I put a warning there if you want to visit Venezuela. As long as my physical safety and the one of the others won´t be secured, I unfortunately won´t come back and won´t advice anybody to do so.
La cola in Venezuela
I would say that the level of easyness for hitchiking in Venezuela is between Brazil and Colombia. As I said, the safety is not very high, so the drivers don´t really like to take the risk to stop for someone. This way, it is much better to talk directly to the drivers. I use the same strategy that I did in Brazil, so to look for my vehicles in the petrol-stations. There, the drivers are much more keen to help you and it works a lot better than in Brazil. Hitchhiking was not really a problem in Venezuela.
Also, I use the same strategy as in Colombia. There are many army checkpoints a little bit everywhere in Venezuela, according to the current government. I often asked in those places. The army has often accepted to help me, even if some didn´t really like to have foreign people traveling in their country... Maybe taking me sometimes for a « yankee de mierda »...
Culture in Venezuela
This couple wonderfully opened me his door and introduced me to the local cultural life. I could discover thanks to them a venezuelian wedding, visit the surroundings, spend my birthday and final, make new friends.
Here I am in Ciudad Guayana with Cristal (in purple), her danish boyfriend Flemming (on the right) and some friends.
The beautiful cake that those ones did for my birthday (have a look on the world map)
The venezuelian wedding is not very different from the one we can have in France. This one can be civil or religious and the celebration is quite identical. Also, the party coming after is very similar.
A young venezuelian, wearing special clothes for the event
In general, I found many similar things in the venezuelian and colombian culture. After all, those two countries were only one for a short period of time, as between 1821 and 1831 during the Grande Colombia.
The culinary culture is also similar. We can find for example the arepas, made out of corn and coming sometimes with cheese.
Cristal doing arepas in Ciudad Guayana
Landscapes, natural attractions
When I entered through the south of the country, I had the opportunity to cross the National Park of « Gran Savana ». The landscape made me think a little bit to the Central Africa savana. In the middle of this, you can see the Mont Roraima, that looks like the Table Mountain in Cape Town in South Africa.
The Mont Roraima
If you pass by Ciudad Guayana don´t miss the waterfalls of the Cachamay Park.
With a bigger budget, don´t forget to go to see the highest waterfalls in the world. The « Salto Angel », with 979 meters.
I am now finishing my tour of South America. I can say that in overall, that was the continent that I liked the most according to the human side of it. I really like the social, the emotional and the partying side of the latin population. Although it has been the continent where I felt the less safe (Venezuela and Brazil on top of it), I have to invite you to discover this wonderful continent. Culture, landscapes, monuments and especially the population helped me to have many incredible social exchanges, moments of joy and happiness.
All in all, it helped me today to be a happy person, quite optimistic about the good intentions of the latin population.
I am currently preparing myself to cross a new stage of my journey with this challence. « Crossing the Pacific Ocean by boat-hitchhiking ».
The challenge started quite well because I am already in Panama, as I have found a boat from Cartagena in Colombia to Colon in Panama. I am today still in this sailing boat, because this one will keep going to New Zealand and wait for the availibility to cross the Panama canal. Maybe will I keep going with them ?
See you soon in the next article !