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Might bring your own toilet paper to Caracas

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Dear Mr. Snowden,

I see in the press that you’re considering asylum in Venezuela. If that’s true, I’d like to make you a business proposal. I think you and I could make millions of dollars here using your new expertise on applying for asylum abroad.

You’ll soon see that there are thousands of Venezuelans who would love to flee and start over in other countries. Long lines of people hoping to snag visas or passports form each morning outside the U.S. and European embassies in Caracas. After you arrive, we could counsel them on the best way to leave.

Don’t get me wrong. Venezuela is a great country, with friendly people and breathtaking natural beauty. There are Caribbean beaches and snow-capped mountains in the Andes. We should take a road trip: Gasoline costs just one cent a gallon. But you might have trouble buying a new car. At the very least, you’ll need patience. Soldiers, police officers and government officials have first dibs.

OK, so it’s not the United States. But I’ve been here for the last 21 years, and I love it. Still, Venezuela isn’t for everyone.

If you’re under the impression that you’re going to be living out the rest of your days in a tropical paradise, think twice before you board that plane to Caracas. And you might want to bring along your own toilet paper.

We’re in the 15th year of a revolution that late President Hugo Chavez began in 1999. Yes, extreme poverty has been reduced as his supporters claim, but that has been accomplished at a cost.

The economy is gutted. The government has expropriated dozens of private companies whose production always seems to fall after their seizure. Today, while walking in my neighbourhood, I saw long lines of people stretching out of a government-owned supermarket. They were waiting to buy cooking oil, sugar, chicken — simple staple goods. Food shortages are common. Pack a comfortable pair of shoes if you want to buy coffee, meat, flour, cornmeal or pasta.

Now, you probably have saved a little money from that ample salary at Booz Allen Hamilton. But if it’s not in cash, and because the U.S. government is probably watching your checking account, you’re going to be in trouble. Prices are soaring here. The inflation rate for the first six months of the year reached 25 per cent. Over the past year, it has been nearly 40 per cent. If you find employment, make sure you’re paid in dollars and that you immediately make contacts on the black market. The official exchange you’ll be given is 6.3 bolavars to the dollar. The black market rate is 33 bolivars to the dollar and rising — as local currency has lost nearly all its value.

Good luck finding an apartment. A new law regulating the housing market, which makes it nigh impossible to dislodge renters, means that few owners want to lease their apartments. And even if you end up living in a ritzy neighbourhood, you’ll want to consider some security (and not just to keep away those pesky Navy SEAL extraction teams).

How can I put this? Think about dying your hair black and working on your tan. You look way too white, which makes you an easy mark for criminals. And criminals abound. Caracas has the highest murder rate of any capital city in the world, and crime and kidnappings are soaring. When the sun goes down, it’s best to be at home, but even that is no guarantee of safety.

Buy a health insurance policy. Although the government and Sean Penn like to claim that all Venezuelans have free access to health care, that’s a farce. At the health center in my little village outside Caracas, the sick are advised to bring their own thermometers. The clinic doesn’t have any. Medications? Forget it — they have none. Patients are sent to nearby private pharmacies for even minor medications. And the hospitals are even worse. One of my friends broke his leg in two places, and I took him to the state hospital here. The doctor told us that his leg would have to be reset with pins. My neighbour said, "Do it." The doctor laughed and told us we had misunderstood. The hospital had no pins; we would have to buy them at a hefty sum in Caracas.

You’ll want to be extra-careful when the lights go out. Although Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, power outages are constant as the electricity grid slowly falls apart. So bring an extra suitcase of batteries and candles from Moscow.

It’s true that many Venezuelans here admire you for blowing the whistle on clandestine U.S. espionage programs. But think twice before pulling a stunt like that here. We have our own version of the surveillance state, but the government’s opponents say that it’s more typically Cuban "advisers" who are listening in on calls through the state telephone company and the armed forces.

Speaking of which, you’ll want to get acquainted with your new best friend: President Nicolas Maduro, who styles himself as a "son" of Chavez and once claimed that his predecessor appeared to him in the form of a bird. A former bus driver, Maduro has made a mission of befriending countries with spotty records on human rights, from Iran to Syria, Cuba to Belarus. His supporters like to claim that Venezuela’s democracy is the best in South America, but that’s clearly a sham. The country’s political institutions, including the Supreme Tribunal of Justice and the National Electoral Council, have lost their autonomy entirely. Under Chavez, they simply became extensions of the supreme power of the president and his minions.

Meanwhile, the president’s election victory this April has yet to be recognized by the country’s opposition, which claims he wouldn’t have won save for massive vote fraud. Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice and the National Electoral Council have dragged their feet in reviewing the results.

I’m not sure how your Spanish is, Senor Snowden, but here’s a quick first lesson. Despite your campaign of conscience against the United States, a few people might still call you Yanqui or gringo, at first. But when they start railing against your homeland, you’ll hear imperialista and capitalista. And get ready to hear the words fascista ("fascist"), contrarrevolucionario ("counterrevolutionary"), and burguos ("bourgeois") a lot. They’re used to describe anyone who opposes the government.

Don’t worry; you’ll be able to find a copy of the Guardian in Caracas. And yes, we still have a free press, even though the government has a habit of shutting down television and radio stations when they get too critical. Open dissent has its dangers. Just ask the 2.4 million Venezuelans who signed a recall petition against Chavez in 2004. Thousands lost their government jobs and are still barred — nine years later — from reapplying for state work. That’s what you get for just speaking out against the government here.

You’ll do fine down here, Senor Snowden, and hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans support you and your crusade. But many more down here wonder why you would ever want to come to a country that constantly violates the very principles you’re fighting for.


Peter Wilson is a journalist who has lived in Venezuela since 1992. The Caracas bureau chief for Bloomberg News for nearly 11 years, Wilson is writing a book on Hugo Chavez and his revolution.


—Bloomberg News

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