Category Archives: Venezuela

News over our shoulder

An interesting part of travel is reading news about countries you’ve traveled in and having a new kind of affinity for what is going on there. It also means I tend to seek out news from places we have traveled in a way I wouldn’t have previously. Here are some examples of news that have raised my eyebrows recently:

  • In an ongoing (and almost certainly futile) attempt to stop its supermarkets running out of key goods, Venezuela is to start requiring grocery shoppers to submit fingerprints when they buy stuff, so they can catch folks who are hoarding.
  • In a mark of the ferocious nationalism that its government has cultivated, a recent poll in China found a majority of Chinese respondents thought their country would go to war with Japan by 2020. I sure hope not.
  • TAP Air Portugal is starting nonstop flights from Lisbon to Bogota. You probably don’t care about that, though. You may be more interested that the US has withdrawn its request to extradite a man they thought was money-laundering, but it turns out is a carpenter who can’t use a computer.
  • China claims to be phasing out its practice of harvesting kidneys from death penalty victims to use for patients who need them. This strikes me as a difficult ethical issue. If you accept the validity of the death penalty then to me taking organs seems okay.

This least friendly country thing is bollocks

It wasn’t inspiring when, not only could we not find a decent guidebook for Pakistan, the first hit on the Rough Guide website when searching “Pakistan” was a claim that it was the third least friendly country in the world for tourists. It’s a claim that has also been repeated by the Huffington Post and CNN.

The list that they site comes from the World Economic Forum as part of its work on Travel and Tourism Competitiveness. The top two ‘least friendly countries’  area apparently Venezuela and Bolivia where we’ve been. Reading this I call bollocks. The people in Venezuela were lovely, despite the fact that their country was falling apart around them. And the people in Bolivia were also super friendly, except perhaps for the witches. Other countries in the top ten don’t stack up either: Trinidad and Tobago, Latvia, Slovakia? Really? How about Iraq or Syria? How about frickin’ North Korea? Surely letting foreign visitors into your country is a prerequisite for friendliness.

So I dug into this a bit more. I can’t get to the raw WEF data without a log in you need to pay for, but best as I can tell, what they call “Affinity for Travel and Tourism” the mainstream media had reported as friendliness. Which is more, the WEF’s ranking relies heavily on their survey of global executives. This has a couple of big problems. First off, not everyone who travels is an executive looking for the things an executive is looking for. I completely accept that neither Bolivia nor Venezuela would be a great place to do business right now. Their governments are unpredictable and their attitude towards foreign investors punitive. That will colour an executive’s experience, but not a backpacker or other holiday maker. Second, my suspicion is that countries were executives tend not to travel much (ahem, Sub-Sharan Africa and the war town Middle East) just don’t get rated.

You really want to test the friendliness of a country, you need a much larger cross section of travelers than those who sit around boardroom tables.

Venezuelans spectacularly bungle Chinese national anthem

There’s something hilariously appropriate about this: the country that we found can’t get its citizens enough washing powder, couldn’t martial its military to give a decent rendition of the Chinese national anthem when the Chinese President was in town. China’s social media commentariat was not happy: “China should express vehement condemnation to Venezuelan government” one said. “I admire our leader and officials for being able to maintain their composures,” said another. That’s fair, I loled.

President Xi Jinping has been making a whistle stop tour of the Americas. He went to he BRICs summit in Brazil, where he agreed to contribute to a new international development bank, intended as a counterbalance of the neo-liberal development values of the World Bank. Then he headed on to see some of the US’s loudest critics in the region, meeting with the Venezuelans, and popping over for a cup of tea with Fidel Castro.

In Venezuela Xi signed billions of dollars of loans which Venezuela is to pay back through oil. It’s a chance for Venezuela to keep its failing economic model in motion for a little longer, and for China to extend its sphere of influence in Latin America (which is, incidentally, a new concern of Venezuela’s fierce protestors).

What we’ve spent in South America

As a public service to anyone who might be thinking about following in our footsteps in South America, and to satisfy the curiosity of others, we thought we’d share a little about what our day to day spending is while traveling in various countries.

We do this as we leave South America and we’ll repeat a similar exercise for Asia later.

We’re providing an average daily spend in New Zealand dollars, and our estimate of how many times cheaper the countries we travel in are than New Zealand. This data is taken from our ongoing spending tracking which we update every week (I affectionately describe this as our WEEBU or weekly budget update) and from our general recollections of the prices we have observed.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 10.20.11 PMDisclaimers

I’d have learned nothing as a consultant if I didn’t offer some disclaimers over this and indeed, a couple of caveats are in order:

  • This is on the ground costs. It excludes international flights and other pre-trip costs like visas and vaccinations.
  • This represents our travel. That means it reflects the specific experiences we chose to have, rather than what costs will be like for everyone. You could travel and spend more, or less and you might differ from us in where you chose to splash out or do it cheap.
  • Our costs are for a couple. You could reasonably assume two thirds for a lone traveler.
  • In a long period of travel there are inevitably some ‘lumpy’ costs like buying a new backpack or sending a package home. Where it’s easy to do so we’ve taken these out, but some will remain.

Some observations

  • Argentina is pleasingly cheap given the quality of food, accommodation etc. we’ve enjoyed is as good, if not better, than what you’d expect at home. Taking advantage of the black market exchange rate it’s like an awesomely cheap version of Europe.
  • Peru is probably cheaper than it looks. Costs are pumped up by expensive entries to places like Machu Picchu. We also chose to spend more to enjoy more of Peru’s excellent cuisine. We don’t regret that for a second, but you could spend less.
  • If you’ve got US dollars then Venezuela is silly cheap and the quality of food and accommodation is surprisingly high. But even given that, traveling there at the moment isn’t worth it. It’s just too dangerous to be enjoyable.
  • Colombia is a great destination and well worth the extra few dollars above the price of travel in Ecuador and Peru. Spending a long time there, to volunteer like we did, is very worthwhile.

So long South America – some parting observations

The sunset at the beginning of the world; day's end at Isla del Sol.
The sunset at the beginning of the world; day’s end at Isla del Sol.

We’re really sad to be leaving South America. It’s been an amazing five months and, if it weren’t for Asian travels on the horizon we’d probably be pretty down about our departure.

Truth be told, South America was never my first priority. When our timing for Asia didn’t match with the climate we needed to do what we wanted we had to reshuffle and I wasn’t sure how it would work out. But our time here has been challenging and rewarding and the places we have been and people we’ve met have been incredible. Significantly exceeded expectations.

As we leave, here are a range of parting observations. They try, but fail, to capture what we’ve seen and what we’ve thought in broad sweeping themes:

  1. There’s a lot of European history here, more than I had understood. Around the same time that Maori were losing their independence to British colonisers, Colombians were getting their independence from Spanish conquistadores. So things look and feel quite European even if they also feel different.
  2. There’s an upper middle class in the Andes whose life experience is probably not so different from ours at home. And that’s true for the whole middle class in Argentina. At the same time there are poorer groups whose living standards are dramatically different.
  3. A little Spanish goes a long way. A little more goes a long way too. There’s surely no other language that is so accessible to English speakers that allows you to speak with such a diversity of people. And the ability to cut through the hand signals and ask about family or work or aspirations really enriches a travel experience. I’m glad I learned some and grateful that Fiona knew lots.
  4. South American societies are colonial, like at home, but the mixing of ethnicities, be they African, European or indigenous, has been much greater. At its most mixy, skin colour doesn’t even denote ethnicity anymore. This is fundamentally different to New Zealand.
  5. It’s not realistic to call South America ‘catholic’. Not when there’s devil worship, hallucinogenic/spiritual drugs and witches. There’s catholic traditions for sure, but there’s a parallel spiritual belief system which sets South America apart, too. They still manage to be pretty prohibitive about abortion, however.
  6. Sloths are amazing.
  7. With notable exceptions, South American food isn’t much to write home about. There are a lot of carbs and a lot of fried things. Peru and Argentina stand out as the pick of the bunch in terms of cuisine.
  8. There’s a strong left wing political tradition in lots of South American countries. The best face of this is innovative policy and a concern for the poor. The worst is disastrous policies piled one upon another to sustain a doctrine that is clearly unrealistic.
  9. It’s not that dangerous, and danger isn’t always where you’d expect. The massive police presence in Colombia made us feel safer there than in the tourist hub of Ecuador.
  10. The people are great. Colombians and Argentinians are the most openly friendly we’ve come across; Bolivians and Peruvians tend to be a little more reserved. But we’ve experienced kindness everywhere we’ve been.

A shred of hope for Venezuela

There’s been an announcement today that talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition are planned. Apparently they’ll be facilitated by representatives from the Vatican. The opposition is insisting that they be broadcast on TV and radio.

That might mean the politicians are more accountable for any commitments they make. Or it might just provide an opportunity for grandstanding. Either way we’re not holding our breath.

Now that we’re on the road we meet more travelers. Most are surprised we went to Venezuela. It probably doesn’t help their impression of our sanity that we impress upon them that making the trip is not a good idea.

Stuff still sucks in Venezuela

We’ve no idea what might be being reported elsewhere, but we’ve an ongoing interest in what’s happening in Venezuela and have been following through Colombian and Western media. Basically it still sucks:

  • There are protests almost daily. BBC says the smell of tear gas and burning tires are a daily feature of life in Caracas.
  • The official death toll has risen from three, when we were three three weeks ago, to twenty five. The last three of those were in a protest just today.
  • Recently doctors and nurses staged their own protest. The government’s control on foreign currency meant they can no longer access medical supplies that need to be brought with USD.

There’s no obvious light at the end of the tunnel and our prediction remains that things will get worse before they get better.

We discourage other travelers from going to Venezuela now. It was edgy when we were there, and it’s worse now. Plus we probably enjoyed the political and economic dimension more than your average backpacker. We also worry for tourists who go without careful consultation, or really checking out the situation. There was lone traveler on our bus in, for example, who thought Venezuela would be just as his Lonely Planet, published years ago, advertised. We wonder how he enjoyed the two weeks he had planned.

Two things about free immigration

  1. The Wayuu historically inhabited parts of Colombia and Venezuela. Because of this, they are now allowed to travel freely between these two countries, without passports, and can work in either. In Cabo de la Vela, for example, there’s about a fifty fifty mix of Colombian and Venezuelan cars.
  2. Despite the freedom to move anywhere in two different countries, many (if not most) of the Wayuu stay in their traditional areas. This despite the fact that it’s a desert that can go without rain for years at a time, and a lifestyle that’s very different from the telenovelas we saw many watching. Free immigration facilitates more movement of people, but it doesn’t mean everyone packs up and moves. Cultural ties to land and family are an important factor in determining where folk live.

A touch of the Dutch

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. Given this, you might reasonably expect that Venezuela would be rich and stable. But it’s neither.

In fact, it’s a much observed economic phenomenon that countries and regions with lots of natural resources, especially point-source resources like minerals and fuels (read: oil), tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources. This paradox is known as the resource curse, and there are lot of explanations for it, many of which seem to apply to Venezuela:

  • Dutch disease is the idea that when a country has lots of a resource it focuses its effort on that resource to the exclusion of the development of other industries, especially manufacturing and agriculture. This is definitely true of Venezuela. It imports two thirds of its food and has no real agriculture to speak of.
  • Industries like oil produce commodities that are sold on a global market. The price for them can change drastically. This creates boom and bust cycles for countries which rely on these prices, destabilising their economy.
  • This one is especially important: when there’s only really one source of wealth, everyone wants to get in on the action. This encourages rent seeking and corruption. Venezuela ranks as the most corrupt country in South America, and its immediate peers in corruption (Cambodia and Eritrea) are much poorer.

Development economists who study this stuff wouldn’t be surprised by the dysfunction we saw in Venezuela, or the increasing instability there. They’d also tell you that the best way to address the resource curse is through strong government (eg. Norway). But, because they’re economists, they wouldn’t be able to provide a clear explanation of how you’d get this sort of government. In the meantime, Venezuela’s sad situation makes senses, even if it’s nonsensical.

Supermarket not super in Venezuela

We always like to visit supermarkets  and markets wherever we travel. The give great insight into how people live. The Venezuelan supermarkets were among the saddest we have ever seen.

For a start, they’re lacking in stuff. There are plenty of vacant shelves, and others that have a first row of, say, canned goods, but nothing in behind. Nationally, the cupboards are bare. Because inflation is so high in Venezuela at the moment, supermarket owners should be hanging on to as little cash as they can (because its value decreases over time) and converting money into inventory instead. They’re not, because they can’t.

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When essentials are available, supermarkets limit how much you can buy. Here you can see rice and washing powder is limited to one per person (please, don’t insist!). We’re not sure how formal this rationing is. But we know that TV stations play government advertisements that say it is unpatriotic to hoard.

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Finally, though the supply of staples is lacking, the selection of goods, overall, doesn’t imply that the country is poor. Just dysfunctional. There’s an odd juxtaposition of not enough flour, but lots of different flavourings for, we presume, baking or drinks. Even when there’s an abundance though, the products are all one brand, probably a state owned producer.

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