Wightman: Venezuela’s Chavistas Can Run but Not Hide
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Venezuela is in turmoil. Political confrontations continue on the streets of Caracas and other cities, with over 40 people killed in clashes with riot police in just the last few weeks.
The International Monetary Fund has projected that the country’s economy will be the worst-performing in the world in 2017, shrinking by 7.4 percent and even underperforming the basket-case economies of South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, and Iraq.
Inflation is projected at over 700 percent this year. Venezuela’s black market dollar exchange rate now sits at an incredible 5392 to one. Not content with socialist price-fixing, the Chavistas under President Nicolás Maduro maintain an absurd system of currency controls that merely increases the national economic sclerosis. Meanwhile, the population starves and Venezuela’s healthcare system is in ruins – the country’s infant death rate is up 30 percent, maternal mortality is up 65 percent, and malaria cases are up 76 percent in 2016.
Still, despite losing popular support, the stubborn Maduro regime refuses to budge. Instead, Maduro has set up military courts for protestors and ushered in a new constitution to weaken Venezuela’s democracy in exchange for amplified Chavista tyranny. For now, Maduro has the army and police force on his side and uses them against his people, even calling on groups of thugs known as colectivos to ride out on motorbikes terrorizing ordinary Venezuelans into submission. The message of the colectivos is simple: stop protesting against the government or we’ll kill you. In the distressing video below, an innocent 23-year-old student, Paola Ramirez, is randomly slain by a colectivo while walking home:
The problem for Maduro is that the Venezuelan people are resilient and inventive. They sense victory in the David versus Goliath battle confronting them and want to see the back of the Maduro regime. Never underestimate the creative power of an angry populace oppressed beyond tolerance. The street protestors could easily arm themselves but have refused to shoot to kill their fellow Venezuelans working in the armed and security forces. Instead, they have used “puputov cocktails” – excrement-filled containers which are lobbed at riot police – and relied on the internet to spread memes exposing government corruption and to disassemble Maduro propaganda.
Below, a side-by-side of an original photo of anti-government protester Caracas, and the government-altered image showing protesters now armed:
Pueden comparar esta foto con la que difunde el chavismo para sus actos de “solidaridad con la revolución” en el exterior. pic.twitter.com/YfGsCAAS3P
The Venezuelan diaspora abroad is playing its part. It has been calculated by the Central University of Venezuela that from 1999 to 2014, over 1.5 million Venezuelans, between 4 percent and 6 percent of Venezuela’s total population, left the country following the Bolivarian Revolution. In 2016 alone, over 150,000 Venezuelans emigrated. Amidst these emigrants were family members of Chavistas and former government and military officials who accompanied a tsunami of funds in the form of Ven bonds and dollar transfers, with the country’s foreign currency reserves plunging in April to just $10bn and at grave risk of default.
Like slugs, the Chavistas have left a money trail and it is not so difficult to trace. There are certain, publicised cases illuminating the way. Meanwhile, leaks like those provided by the Panama Papers hack at Mossack Fonseca have pinpointed brokers, facilitators and even specific bank accounts.
Opponents of Maduro abroad have tracked down Chavistas and photographed their palatial homes and luxury cars, posting them on social media so Venezuelans back home can see what happened to the country’s oil wealth. Now they are following wealthy Chavista expats when they go shopping in luxury malls, at bakeries, and interrupting their meals in expensive restaurants, pointing out the uncomfortable fact that the socialist Bolivarian revolution they called for and represented has left the Venezuelan population starving while they gorge their faces.
Here is Maripili Hernández, a former minister in Hugo Chavez’ Government, being confronted in a swish Barcelona restaurant on the 10th of May:
The daughter of Jorge Jesús Rodríguez Gómez, Vice President of Venezuela from January 2007 to January 2008, was foolish enough to post videos of herself online enjoying the high life in Australia, so Venezuelans out there decided to pay her a visit with a camera while she was strolling alongside Bondi beach:
The strategy of chasing down Chavistas and their money abroad has them rattled. A Venezuelan blogger in London, Alek Boyd, has been tracking the various money laundering operations used by Chavistas outside of Venezuela and Alek’s flat in London was broken into, his laptops were stolen, and his children were threatened by men who he is convinced are agents of Maduro’s regime. A constant target for DDoS attacks, his blog has been censored in Venezuela, where Maduro’s henchmen have blocked access to websites, shut down certain newspapers and closed TV stations. CNN en Español was summarily kicked off cable television in Venezuela in February this year.
Paranoid Maduro has even blocked access to the exchange website DolarToday to prevent Venezuela citizens accessing the country’s exchange rates, accusing DolarToday of fuelling an economic war against his government and manipulating the exchange rate.
There are insiders that admit President Maduro – a former bus driver – is not coping well under the strain. He looks worn and haggard compared to when he was inaugurated in April 2013. Some opposition politicians genuinely believe it’s almost time for the regime to pack up and hightail in their private jets. Pressure is undoubtedly mounting.
Perhaps that might explain why, on May 4th, Maduro was filmed asking cows in Maisanta in Barinas State if they would support proposed constitutional changes, which would further deepen his autocracy:
Quem Deus vult perdere prius dementat. (Whom the Lord wishes to ruin, he first deprives of reason.)
Dominic Wightman is a British businessman living between the UK & Venezuela. He is married to the Venezuelan TV Presenter & Fashion Model, Widmaru Calma.