The (Re)discovery of Venezuela

In 16 years Venezuela has fallen from being a model for the anti-globalization movement to an example for doomsday planners, video gamers and screenwriters of post-apocalyptic chaos.


Daisy Luther lives in California and believes that the end of the world is coming soon. To prepare others to survive in the coming post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-like scenario she writes a blog, “The Organic Prepper”. Last year, she found a case study that she uses to teach her readers what an economic collapse looks like: Venezuela. She quotes Reuters dispatches about the scarcity in the country and says that Obama’s “socialist” government will take America in the same apocalyptic path.

In other words, Venezuela has become a doomsday-er’s worse-case scenario.

She’s not the only one who has recently thought of Venezuela as a synonym for chaos. During an episode of the TV series Homeland, the soldier-turned-terrorist Brody is kidnapped in Torre de David, a high rise occupied by squatters in Caracas, a place that actually exists. On House of Cards, Doug finds the hacker who knows Rachel’s whereabouts in the unreliable country that gave him asylum, Venezuela. One mission in popular video game Call of Duty: Ghosts occurs in Caracas, which the game uses as the capital of a fictional rogue state, The Federation.

Just a few years before, Venezuela was mentioned in totally different ways. International media featured Venezuela as the country that gave birth to El Sistema, the network of juvenile symphonic orchestras that conductors like Claudio Abbado or Simon Rattle praised, and that produced the famous conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Those were the times when the charismatic leader of the Bolivarian revolution, Hugo Chávez, was still alive; the international price of oil—Venezuela’s main export—was close to a hundred dollars; the chavista propaganda apparatus was still effectively selling Venezuela as a successful socialist experiment; chavismo—the president’s movement—was still consistently winning elections; and celebrities like Sean Penn and Oliver Stone were spreading the gospel of Chávez as a new hope for the Third World.

That all started to change—both in tone and intensity—in 2013. Chávez died, his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, barely won the subsequent election, protests erupted across the country, and the chavista political and economic model seemed to spin out of control as the economy collapsed and political repression increased. With it, the Bolivarian revolution also lost its international star power. Noam Chomsky and Kevin Spacey, who had previously voiced their support for the government, were now signing manifestos against the imprisoning of judges or opposition politicians. In his acceptance speech at the 2014 Oscar’s ceremony Jared Leto proclaimed his support for the Venezuelan protesters.

Meanwhile, international media have turned Venezuela into a regular spectacle. CNN en Español follows closely what happens in the country. The Miami Herald and the conservative Spanish newspaper ABC publish frequent reports on money-laundering and drug trafficking. El País and The Washington Post have been increasing their criticism of Maduro in their opinion pages. Latin American conservative newspapers, including Lima’s El Comercio and Buenos Aires’ La Nación, present Venezuela as a cautionary tale about the consequences of voting for the left. The Economist has kept up steady, gloomy coverage of the financial and economic devastation wrought by 16 plus years of chavista economic policy. And The New York Times correspondent Nicholas Casey opened a reporter’s notebook about moving to Caracas and dealing with scarcity and inflation. On January 5th, he invited the readers to submit their questions about life in the capital; he received more than 600, from all over the world.

Venezuela isn’t used to such attention. Without Mexico’s silver, Peru’s gold or Colombia’s emeralds, it wasn’t a colony Spain cared much about. After the bloodiest independence war in South America, the country remained ruined and in a chronic state of civil war during the 19th century. Until the discovery of oil in 1911 and its development a few decades later, Venezuela was mostly of interest to intrepid naturalists and European traders of coffee, tonka beans and heron feathers. But, by the 1940s, with the exploitation of its oil reserves, the country became a beacon for U.S. businessmen, attracting the Rockefeller family and big banks and creating an emerging economy with jobs that brought European immigrants. One telling depiction of this era was the recent Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) exhibition Latin America in Construction 1955-1980, portraying a Caracas that looked, in the ‘50s, like Dubai today: a playground for modernist “starchitects.”

During the ’70s and the ’80s, Venezuela was set aside from much of the research and news on the region. At a time when military coups, Marxist-inspired insurgencies, debt crises and later, democratic transitions, were sweeping the region, Venezuela was a functional democracy, an oasis prosperous enough to hide the traces of theft and mismanagement. Beauty queens and formerly successful telenovelas defined the image of Caracas as a Latin capital of hedonism while Lima was under attack from Sendero Luminoso bombs and Bogota watched its Justice Palace burn after being seized by the M19.

Oil and all its instant, easy wealth crafted a foreign policy that, though committed to preserve the economic links with the U.S., supported Argentina in the Falklands War, defended integration through the Andean Pact and promoted peace in Central America with a strong involvement in the Contadora negotiations group. State-funded cultural institutions and progressive Caracas newspapers hired exiled intellectuals from Argentina and Chile. Thousands of impoverished Colombians, Peruvians and Dominicans came to Venezuela to find themselves accepted in a society that behaved as if its wealth would last forever. But the bubble finally exploded and by the ‘90s nobody was talking about Venezuela. Its democracy questioned, even dismissed, and its economy falling apart, the country returned to international anonymity.

Then came Chávez in 1998. He already knew how to strike the chords of a Latin America sick of traditional leaders and to take advantage of a world furious with the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. When the oil prices went up again, Chávez’s foreign policy (often hard to distinguish from his megalomania) relaunched the Venezuelan mirage. By making a star of himself, Chávez made Venezuela famous again. But that story has two sides. For the left, the Bolivarian Revolution echoed the words of Christopher Columbus when he landed on Venezuela’s coast in 1498 and declared it Eden. For intellectuals authors like Venezuelan columnist Moisés Naím, Venezuela in the late 1990s and early 2000s was no paradise, but a hell of violence, autocracy and absurdity.

It’s that last image that has become the common view and discourse about Venezuela today. This time, the pattern of Venezuela’s invisibility has been broken with the precipitous fall of oil prices. This time, Chávez’s disastrous legacy is so spectacular that it’s given the country a new infamy.

Today the world sees Venezuela with astonishment and pity, wondering how a country that claims to have the biggest oil reserves in the world and once claimed it was going to remake the global system has become a model for gamers, directors and apocalypse forecasters to test survival skills. What a potentially paranoid doomsday blogger sees as an example of the collapse to come, has become everyday life for 29 million people.


Rafael Osío Cabrices is a Venezuelan journalist and author. His most recent book is Apuntes bajo el aguacero.

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