Since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998, Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution” has sent the country through a spectrum of dizzying transformations. Before dying in 2013, Chávez enjoyed support for his programs that redistributed Venezuela’s huge oil income to benefit the poor and lift many from poverty but also earned criticism for the erosion of democratic institutions and human rights. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, has struggled to maintain any of the Chavista benefits and has exacerbated all of its woes.
Maduro’s rise to power coincided with the collapse of oil prices, upon which Venezuela depends for roughly 50% of its GDP and 95% of its exports. With none of Chavez’s petroleum-powered spending, personal charisma or popular support, Maduro has lurched toward authoritarianism in increasingly desperate attempts to stay in power. The results have been devastating for the people of Venezuela.
An economic crisis
By almost any metric available, the rapid decline of the Venezuelan economy under the Maduro regime has been catastrophic.
- The oil-rich country’s GDP per capita plummeted 40% between 2013 and 2017.
- Stunned by the two-fisted punch of inflation and currency devaluation, median monthly wages for the average worker, as measured in black market dollars, crashed 88% from $295 in 2012 to a mere $36 today.
- While the Maduro government has not released official inflation statistics for more than a year, the most recent inflation rate estimates are 700-800%, year-on-year.
- The share of Venezuelan citizens living in income poverty has ballooned from 48% in 2014 to 82% in 2016.
A humanitarian crisis
Predictably and disturbingly, the precipitous impoverishment of Venezuela’s economy has had a devastating effect on the Venezuelan people. Most people simply do not have enough to eat. Lifesaving medicines are in short supply.
According to a study by Venezuela’s top three universities, 74% of Venezuelans have involuntarily lost an average of 8.6 kilos (19 lbs.). The number of food calories that people on median wages can buy has fallen by nearly 90%. Eleven percent of children in vulnerable areas are in what relief agencies describe as “acute malnutrition”, higher than the 10% the agencies use to declare a full-blown food crisis.
The other indicator of a humanitarian disaster, “crude mortality rate” is just as grim. Thousands of doctors, along with hundreds of thousands of others, have fled the country. Medicines are scarce. Venezuela is suffering a ten-fold increase in inpatient mortality and a 100-fold increase in newborn mortalities.
A political crisis
Hugo Chávez’s populist government did away with an independent judiciary in 2004, leaving the country without this branch of government upon which democracies also depend. The Maduro-controlled Supreme Court has since consistently blocked legislation by the National Assembly, now dominated by the opposition, so that, for example, Venezuela’s 2017 budget was created by presidential decree and then rubber-stamped by the court.
Corruption in Venezuela is rampant. According to Transparency International, Venezuela currently ranks as the eighth-most corrupt country on the planet. Widespread dissatisfaction with the Maduro regime’s corruption, sharpened by pangs of hunger, has led to frequent demonstrations and further crackdowns. Amnesty International is anything but optimistic about the country’s human rights record.
Maduro’s political future is uncertain as even China, the prime enabler of Venezuela’s debt, has had enough. Even though the recent “Constituent Assembly” election granted him enormous power to postpone presidential elections and stay in power, he is increasingly seen as isolated.
Security in Venezuela: From bad to worse
As the country’s economic and political fortunes spiral downwards, so does its security situation. The combination of the rapid and extreme impoverishment of large portions of the population, millions of illegal weapons, and weak law enforcement makes Venezuela a dangerous place to be.
Visitors to Venezuela need to exercise extreme caution. Currently, both the U.S Department of State and the UK’s foreign service recommend that travelers stay away from Venezuela if at all possible. OSAC describes Venezuela as one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
Violent crimes such as armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, and murder are widespread. Political demonstrations can erupt from moment to moment, leading to vicious suppression and intimidation by the government, and peril to demonstrators and anyone else nearby.
While no part of the country is considered safe, some times of day and places deserve extra attention.
- Travel by car at night is particularly dangerous. Stopping for red lights after dark is rare, for example, as most drivers prefer the risk of a traffic accident to the risk of being held at gunpoint.
- The area around Simón Bolívar International Airport, in Maiquetía, is considered especially prone to kidnappings and armed robberies. Gang members spot travelers who appear to be wealthy at the airport, then tell carjackers and muggers waiting outside how to find them. The road from Maiquetía to Caracas is dangerous, especially at night.
- ATMs, which limit withdrawals of bolivars to the equivalent of just a few dollars, are magnets for thugs.
- The states of Zulia, Tachira and Apure, all of which border Colombia, are plagued by armed gangs and drug traffickers in addition to the country-wide risks mentioned above.
Trust in local law enforcement is low. Despite the high crime rate, very few criminals are brought to trial. Police are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the violence. Corruption flourishes.
To make matters worse, over-the-counter and prescription medicines are in extremely short supply, and hospital capacities are woefully overstretched. Travelers are recommended to bring ample supplies of their own meds, as they are unlikely to be able to find what they need locally. Venezuelans are left to their own devices.
When the travel surge comes, staying safe in Venezuela will require local know-how
Understandably, foreign travel to Venezuela is now minimal. Multinationals have all but ceased doing business there due to lack of supplies, rampant inflation and political instability. Indeed, many have sold their interests at a loss, or practically given them away. Similarly, foreign NGOs are seldom guests in the country: Foreign-funded NGOs have been barred since 2010, and the Maduro government has stubbornly resisted foreign aid. This, too, will change.
When Venezuela’s political and economic systems shift to a different approach, which we believe is inevitable (although when and how this will occur is currently anyone’s guess), there will be a surge of foreign travel. Companies tasked with shoring up the country’s sagging infrastructure will be some of the first to come. NGOs eager to ameliorate the country’s humanitarian crisis will soon follow, as will international bodies and lending institutions who will need to sort out Venezuela’s staggering foreign debt. Other multinationals will not be far behind.
We expect this surge of foreign travel to Venezuela to subside over time, but it will initially be intense. As usually happens during sudden inbound travel increases, finding reliable security services will quickly become difficult. Local police will still be too overwhelmed to rely on. In order to prepare, we encourage executives with an interest in rebuilding Venezuela to prepare carefully to stay safe, happy and productive during their travels there. Finding the right security partners is essential.
Using security services with local knowledge is paramount. You want security experts that have their finger on the local pulse, and know how to navigate safely in a rapidly changing risk environment. Despite the turmoil of the last many years, these assets do exist.
It is also critical to demand that Venezuelan security personnel are vetted, licensed and suitably equipped. Armoured cars are necessary for most ground transportation. Sat phones are the only way to ensure reliable comms in a country plagued by power outages and other consequences of crumbling infrastructure. In a country so plagued by crime and corruption, staff need to be carefully evaluated and selected. If they are armed, they must be suitably licensed.
Finally, we think it’s important to find folks who are facilitators as well as protectors. Even hard-core road warriors with experience in similar countries might find typical Venezuelan security forces a little rough around the edges. To maintain optimal productivity, foreign travellers should use security personnel who possess the soft skills as well as the hard ones.
We look forward to your comments. And along with millions of people in Venezuela and abroad, we hope the day when things take a positive turn in this struggling country will come soon.