BY: ADAM THRUSH
Essentially all of Latin America has a reputation for street crime, gang warfare, and political instability. Of course it’s not accurate, and the citizens of these countries will be the first to tell you that. However, it was different with Venezuela. In preparation for my trip to the country, rather than dispel the rumours, Venezuelans confirmed the horror stories, didn’t insist on coming and actually, quite sternly, advised against it. Why was this? What had happened?
To begin, much like Canada, Venezuela has a natural resource economy heavily reliant on the production of oil. According to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), they have the largest proven oil reserve in the world. In addition, due to the country’s fierce socialism since 1999, this industry (amongst many others in the country) is nationalized which means the country acquires a high (80+) percentage of the profits they earn. They weren’t doing too badly for a country that outright rejected neoliberal political influences, mainly from the United States. However, after their beloved leader Hugo Chavez died in 2013 and oil prices plummeted in 2015, their economy, political stability and quality of life followed suit.
Adriana Pérez of the capital of Caracas said “everything has increased in price, the most affected being the cost of food. And if it’s not the price, it’s the lack of availability.” Venezuelans have had to wait in line for hours just to get the essentials, such as toilet paper, while others have resorted to heading west for the border of Colombia.
Chavez’s replacement and current president, Nicolas Maduro, has not found a solution to his country’s downfall. Due to insufficient energy production, earlier in the year Maduro installed a temporary three day weekend for government workers, which fairly quickly became a five day weekend, shortening the school week and government services in the process. In addition, just this month he raised the minimum wage for the third time in 2016 to just over 22,000 bolivar per month (about 23 american dollars) in an effort to help those who need it the most. Desperate times indeed.
The currency situation is a very interesting and stressful part of planning a trip to Venezuela. There are four different rates of exchange in the country. The two most important ones are the government rate of one American dollar for 250 bolivar (you don’t want this one), and the other being the black market rate of around 900 – 1100 bolivar per american dollar (you want this one). The black market rate is illegal but is commonly used by Venezuelans. This rate is also essential to tourists, the problem is finding a trusting person to change it for you. Meeting someone, anyone in the country that might help you with changing money should be a priority before coming to this country since the bank machines and ATMs use the official government rate and can only dispense 6,000 bolivar (6 dollars) per day, regardless of whether you’re a Venezuelan or tourist (there are people in the airport who will change your money at a lower, yet preferential rate over the official one).
This means that foreigners coming to the country bring with them enough American dollars to last them the duration of their stay in Venezuela. The American dollars are then traded at an agreed rate (anything over 750 bolivar per dollar is fair). Currency exchange is further complicated by the fact that there is over 500% inflation of the bolivar. So prepare yourself to get handed a stack of bills, even if you’re only exchanging $20. The highest denomination that currently exists in the country is the 100 bolivar bill (worth about 10 cents American), the lowest being the 2 (if the bills were more absorbent, Venezuelans would be better off using the 2 bolivar bill in the bathroom rather than actual toilet paper). To put things into context, buying a juice at a restaurant costs around $2,000 bolivar, which requires you to count out 20 bills, at the least.
Low wages, high prices, and a corrupt, insufficient police force has led to significant increase of violence over the years, especially in Caracas. The capital has the highest homicide rate in the world for any city outside of war zone at 119 murders per 100,000 people. Assaults, robberies, and kidnappings are also up (do you want to travel here yet?). This isn’t just a low income problem. Middle class men have been also been known to resort to crime in order to keep food on the table. The currency issue makes it more dangerous to tourists because criminals (and other desperate people) are aware of the complications regarding the bolivar. They most likely know that you are avoiding using your credit card and therefore, have lots of cash on you, which makes you a bigger and more tempting target for crime.
Corruption on a political and policing level is also widespread. Police road stops are very common and officers are known to check the bags of travellers for cash. If you have more cash than you’re supposed to have (remember the legal limit of 6,000 bolivar per day) that could warrant an arrest or, more likely, a request from the officer to pay him for avoiding a charge. I was told to create a backstory as to why I had 40,000 bolivar with me despite just entering the country (my reason was that a Venezuelan, who I had met in Nicaragua, was leaving the country and no longer needed his bolivars and, thus, gave them all to me).
In most Latin American countries, they have the faces of religious figures plastered everywhere. In Venezuela it’s the face of their deceased former president Hugo Chavez (equally as creepy in my opinion). It’s as if he’s still alive. His socialist ideology called ‘Chavismo’ is, in fact, living. It is still utilized in the country and has also heavily influenced other left-leaning governments in Latin America (such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua). After a while you feel as if you’re in China or North Korea, other countries that continue to immortalize deceased former leaders. Perhaps even an Orwellian world where thought-police monitor your continued support of the government regardless of the situation they’ve put the country in. In any manner, it was difficult to separate genuine public support from the ubiquitous state propaganda (I assume a majority was the latter).
To say the least, Venezuela is not really set up for tourism at the moment. The amount of research and preparation needed to visit this county is unrivalled by its Latin neighbours, along with the potential danger associated with day-to-day life. A tour guide in Canaima National Park, in the southeast of the country, told me that five years ago over 100 people would reach the base of Angel Falls, while now he would be lucky to have 15. This decrease in tourism has made it more expensive to backpack here. Despite gas costing a fraction of a cent, transportation is still pricey and, unless you’ve come with a group of people, you’ll likely have to hire a private car to yourself in order to bring yourself to many of Venezuela’s beautiful sites.
In the end, I had no issues during my trip to the country. I did however, take the advice of friends (the same ones who told me not to come in the first place) and stuck to the more rural areas of the country, far from the chaos of Caracas. Venezuela is an extremely attractive place with some of the best beaches on the continent, thick Amazon rainforest, the tallest waterfall in the world, the amazing tepui plateaus of Roraima National Park, along with culturally rich indigenous communities along the Rio Orinoco. To a lover of politics, it is also the most interesting country on the continent to visit. 2017 may bring a referendum on the country’s leadership; however any chance of stability will take years to arrive, regardless of what happens in the elections. So if the urge to visit is irresistible (as it was for me), simply prepare yourself and possibly look into organized tours that will further ensure your safety in one of South America’s most beautiful countries. And remember, cheap gas!
P.S. I don’t encourage breaking the law in Venezuela by trading foreign currency illegally. I was simply stating the reality of what happens there.