Venezuela

In our Reporting Back series, we ask FT foreign correspondents to tell us about a recent trip.

In this dispatch, Andres Schipani, the FT’s Andes correspondent, gives his account of a visit this month to Venezuela, where protests over the past month against the socialist regime of president Nicolás Maduro have left at least 33 people dead. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

“We could turn Venezuela into Ukraine!” a student protester shouted in Caracas this weekend. It is striking how similar the situations are in the two countries, despite the significant differences.

There have been many tragic deaths in both countries – although about 100 people have died in Ukraine, versus “only” around ten in Venezuela. This difference is one reason why the troubles in Venezuela has not yet captured the same attention as the protests in Ukraine.

Just because Venezuela lacks Ukraine’s immediate geo-political heft – there are no borders in question in Venezuela; Europe’s energy security is not under threat; nor is the reach of Russia’s power or Vladimir Putin’s reputation – does not mean it lacks wider significance.

Caracas provides important economic assistance to Havana, without which Cuba’s economy would sink. Communist Cuba therefore has a vested interest in what happens in Venezuela, just as Russia does in Ukraine – a situation ripe for Cold War style comparisons. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

First protests; then inevitable casualties and recriminations. Life is getting harder on the mean streets of Venezuela’s cities. But that does not mean that a change of regime is in the offing.

The street protests that left three dead on Wednesday after pro and anti-government forces clashed came after a week of scattered gatherings across the country. The trigger was the arrest on Feb 6 of four students in western Tachira state. Since then relatively small gatherings, coordinated by social media under the hashtag #LaSalida, the Exit, have gathered in provincial cities.

Some of these protests turned violent after the National Guard attempted to disperse crowds. Wednesday’s nationwide protests were of a different scale. Rough estimates suggest the crowd in Caracas reached 20,000 people. Reports suggest pro-government motorcycle gangs attacked them. Either way, it was the worst unrest since President Nicolás Maduro won last year’s election by a whisker after his mentor, Hugo Chávez, died. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles protest in front of riot police in Caracas on April 15, 2013 (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of Henrique Capriles protest on April 15 (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

“I will continue governing the country with its people. Street government.” So tweeted Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday night as Venezuela’s president-elect sought to strengthen his hold on the country amid deadly street clashes, a teetering economy and an angry opposition that has disputed his narrow election victory.

It’s a febrile atmosphere: seven people died in riots overnight, 60 were injured and 170 arrested. Back in Europe, fresh from a recent trip to Caracas, many have asked me: is this country nuts?

One way to imagine yourself into the Venezuelan mindset is to picture yourself in an old fashioned American automobile – a yank tank – cruising along one of the rain-stained concrete flyovers that define Caracas’ cityscape. Towering sky-scrapers, built during the 1970s oil boom and now thick with grime, flit by on either side. You have a full tank of gas (it cost just $3 to fill up). It’s tropical hot, and the car’s air-conditioning is broken and unfixable because the spare parts needed to repair it are imported and thus unobtainable due to currency restrictions. No matter: the windows are open. Other cars are jouncing along at high speed in the adjacent lanes. The atmosphere is exhilarating – although you are just making a regular trip to the airport, a half hour drive down to the coast, and your suitcase is in the back.

When I made that trip on the Friday before the election, our way was momentarily blocked by an accident. Think of what follows as just another regular day in Caracas. To avoid the traffic back-up, a white SUV with blue tinted windows was bucking over the concrete lane divider, and then started heading backwards against the traffic towards a slipway a couple of hundred metres behind. Further on, we passed a turning to Ciudad Caribe, a “socialist new town” where earlier that week two police had accidentally shot a child. A furious mob subsequently lynched one of the police officers.

Later, checking in at the airport, I was pulled aside for a routine security check. A bored young soldier rummaged through my suitcase. He found a DVD set of a hit Colombian soap opera I was watching: “Pablo Escobar, Father of Evil”. The badges on his olive green tunic proclaimed him a member of Venezuela’s “National Boliviarian Guard – anti-drugs unit.” His interest perked up, although not for the reasons I expected.

“You know, for me, Pablo Escobar was one of the greatest of men, ever,” he said fingering the DVDs covetously. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Nicolas Maduro celebrates with his wife, Cilia Flores, after being declared the winner of Venezuela's presidential election (Reuters).

Only six weeks in the grave, and Hugo Chávez’s socialist dream is fading fast. Last night, the chosen successor of “el commandante”, Nicolas Maduro, won Venezuela’s presidential election, but only by a whisker.

Maduro – “the self-proclaimed son of Chavez” – got 50.7 per cent of the vote, versus 49.1 per cent for Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader. That compares to an 11 point win for Chavez in October’s presidential election. Capriles has refused to accept the result until the votes are fully audited.

Assume, for now, that the result stands and no evidence is found of jiggery-pokery. That is still no kind of mandate for Maduro and Venezuela’s ruling socialist party. This is a country split down the middle. Such a close result will also undermine Maduro’s standing within the ruling socialist party. The 50-year old former foreign minister and bus driver will struggle to reconcile chavismo’s various factions, many of whom may think they could do a better job. But the country is in a mess, whoever comes to govern it. Read more

Esther Bintliff

(JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

(JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

On April 14, Venezuelans will choose a president for the second time in less than a year. Hugo Chávez won October’s election; following his death, it’s expected that his chosen heir – former vice-president and acting President Nicolás Madurowill be voted in. But even if Maduro wins comfortably, the presidency is a poisoned chalice. Here are six reasons why.

CHAVISMO When Chávez died, thousands of ordinary people flooded the streets to mourn. They spoke of him in familial terms – as a father, a protector, a benefactor. Their affection reflected the fact that Chávez’s rule brought about material change in the lives of many, particularly the poorest – he cut poverty by half, and increased access to healthcare and education. But it’s worth noting that other countries in the region made similar social progress without the divisions that Chavismo generated.

While there was growing opposition to Chávez – in October, his rival Henrique Capriles secured 44 per cent of the vote – his supporters loved him with a devotion that will be hard for any leader to replicate. That has repercussions for his political movement. ‘Chavismo’ would face a far more uncertain future without the charismatic former tank commander at its head; it was always a highly personalised political project,” John Paul Rathbone noted in December.

The final dividend of Chávez’s charisma will probably be the election of his chosen heir, as even voters uncertain about Maduro are swung by loyalty to the wishes of their former leader. In a video for the New York Times, Simon Romero asks an 80-year-old lady who she will vote for. “Well naturally, this last request of my president who pleaded from his heart that we vote for the one he chose, to vote for Maduro.” Read more

John Paul Rathbone

The optimism of the early Chávez years is fading (Getty)

Landing in Maiquetia, Venezuela’s main international airport, is always a bit like stepping through the looking glass no matter where you’re coming from. But arriving from neighbouring Colombia is a stark reminder of just how far the fortunes of these two countries have diverged over the past 15 years or so.

At the turn of the century, Colombia was under the cosh – from the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, drug traffickers, often all at the same time. Bogotá was an austere, gloomy place. The only way seemed to be down. Today, its refurbished El Dorado airport is all gleaming efficiency – perhaps the slickest entrepôt on the continent. The capital’s streets are thrumming, the Colombian personality remains upbeat and can-do, democracy is effervescent (and bumpy, like all healthy democracies), inflation is low, and while the country’s peace talks with the Farc guerrillas is sometimes a halting process, government security officials have a spring in their step. I suspect the talks are going far better than many believe and a deal could be possible in a number of months. Peace could then see the economy really take off and the country properly attack its glaring inequalities and income disparities.

In Venezuela everything is al reves – the opposite. Read more

Geoff Dyer

Lets just say that the idea of a post-Chávez rapprochement between the US and Venezuela did not get off to a great start.

Even before the death of Hugo Chávez had been formally announced on Tuesday, two US military officials were expelled for “planning to destabilize the country”.

Vice-president and heir apparent Nicolás Maduro then promised an investigation into the prospect that Venezuela’s “historical enemies” had induced Mr Chávez’ terminal cancer. There had been “too many historical cases” of such under-hand assassinations, he warned. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

It is a common error in politics to underestimate your adversary. Ever since Hugo Chávez fell ill from cancer two years ago, many imagined that his rule and his oil-fuelled socialist revolution would also end with his death, undermined by its own prodigious inefficiency and corruption. But now that the Venezuelan president has actually died, it no longer quite looks that way.

Chávez is now bound for mythology. In the imagination of his mourning supporters, he may come to occupy a space similar to Che Guevara’s – another martyr of the revolutionary left, albeit one without as large a cheque book. Indeed, Chávez’s early death is likely to prolong “chavismo” for a few more years rather than bring it to an abrupt end. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Presidents Raul Castro of Cuba (L) and Sebastian Piñera of Chile during a summit of Latin American states on Monday (Reuters).

It all went surprisingly well. Latin America, in sentiment if not in deed, presented a united front to its European guests at the summit of EU and Latin American leaders in Santiago, which wound up on Monday. With customary politesse, local differences were mostly swept under the carpet.

Nobody in Chile kicked up a fuss that communist Cuba will now head the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (Celac) – even though democracy is one of Celac’s core goals. The region’s free-trading Pacific countries –Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile – agreed to drop tariffs to speed the creation of their “Pacific Alliance”, a “free-trade” block. (By contrast, Mercosur, a rival regional trade pact led by more protectionist Brazil and Argentina has been negotiating an EU trade deal for over a decade.) A handful of business deals were signed. And a long and flowery letter, supposedly written by Hugo Chávez from his sickbed in Cuba and that called for Latin American unity, was read out, which lent some colour to the last day. Read more