Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Daniel Thwaites | Holness right on Venezuela

Published:Sunday | June 4, 2017 | 6:00 AM

You will find Cartagena's beautiful Torre del Reloj, the famous Clock Tower that sits atop the entrance to the old walled city, on Av. Venezuela. The street name is an indication that Colombia and Venezuela share much history, which is why, on a recent trip to Cartagena, I was surprised at the dispiritingly negative vibe I got whenever I asked about Venezuela.

This is how it came to my attention. The senor at my hotel's front desk was passionately discouraging my plan to stroll along the old Wall in the direction of The Clock Tower in the evening.

"It is no for you," he said in heavily accented English. "Is where Venezuela girls go."

Let's put aside for the moment how (pleasantly) surprised I was at this stranger's vote of confidence in my purity and moral uprightness. Admittedly, I was wearing my good shirt. But still, we can't credit him with perfect judgement after that. For as the Good Book says, to think it is culpable. But all that aside, it was the clear tone of disapproval in the way he said, "Venezuela" - almost spitting it out - that really got my attention.

Thereafter, I asked every local I conversed with their view on their neighbour, and learned through my wife's increasingly irritated translation services that it wasn't very flattering. And also, inescapably drawn by his admonition not to venture towards The Clock Tower during the evening, I went there and saw for myself the young ones - many looked underaged to me - standing around in short skirts, high heels, and heavily painted faces.

 

VENEZUELANS CROSSING THE BORDER

 

Now I wasn't having conversations with the chicas much less checking passports or nationality papers, but I reckoned the hotel concierge couldn't be completely wrong, and some quick research (Google works everywhere and the city has public Wi-Fi) confirmed that whereas Colombians used to flee to Venezuela to escape misery, now Venezuelans are crossing the border to sell their labour or their bodies in Colombia.

"This," I thought to myself, "is what the Bolivarian Revolution has come to." And because I believe in maintaining humour regardless, I then thought: "What's that phrase Scree gave me as the punchline of one of his excellent jokes? That's it: 'Solidarity on ALL fronts!'"

Now there is a pretty good theory about countries that says, at core, they are best segregated into two groups: those that people are leaving, and those that people are trying to enter. It's admittedly a little rough around the edges, but the basic idea is, I believe, quite accurate. People vote with their feet with an economic accuracy and inerrancy that even their words and ostensible ideologies often belie.

Notably, people are fleeing Venezuela, getting out if they can, while the country swirls around the porcelain rim, heading down the latrine.

Meanwhile - inevitably - you will find apologists, usually on the political Left, making excuses and proving, unwittingly, that blind regime worship is a feature of many political persuasions. It is amazing what can be accomplished if you take a dictatorship and call it 'socialism'. In fact, not so long ago, this social meltdown was being praised as the resurgence of the Latin American Left, and the rebirth of some statist ideal.

Of course, since "I told you so" are four of the most satisfying words a man can string together in the English language, I feel almost compelled to dig up old copies of The Gleaner and name names to call out the advanced idiocy Chavismo seemed to elicit.

There's no doubt that Chavez and Maduro took the reins of a country with serious problems, but the cure, especially if administered by unchecked self-confident quacks, can be much worse than the disease! And anyone with even minimal insight ought to have been able to predict that this wouldn't end well.

Anyway, although there's been a fair deal of reporting in the local press, it's worth repeating some of the shocking stats and realities. Maduro's executive has made a massive power grab. Few institutions remain independent. They're blocking journalists from reporting, harassing ordinary citizens that speak out, and silencing the Opposition.

 

ECONOMY A MESS

 

The economy is in shambles. Inflation is running at like 750% this year. Last year, the economy shrank 18%. Venezuela has topped Bloomberg's economic misery index for the last 3 years.

Health is dire. The hospitals are in disrepair. There are outbreaks of malaria and scabies. Infant mortality is up 30% over last year. Maternal mortality is up 65%. Medicines are unavailable.

Security is non-existent. We know that Caracas has become the actual murder capital of the world, although the qovernment has quit publishing information about it. An estimated 92% of homicides don't result in a conviction.

With all this, the population is starving. Almost one third of the people eat two or fewer meals per day. The military controls food supply, so distribution is rife with corruption and inefficiency. Three-quarters of Venezuelans have lost an average of 19 pounds because of what is now being called 'the Maduro diet'.

Naturally, we would rather avert our eyes from Venezuela. As I've pointed out repeatedly, our sugardaddy is up to no good, We have benefited enormously from Ch·vista largesse and so are predisposed to be insensitive to the plight of those pesky annoyances, the actual people of Venezuela. But they are the owners of the Venezuelan crude that has been used to grease and lather up our political parties, and, by extension, all of us.

All of which brings me to the current debate about how Jamaica ought to handle the man-made crisis and the international relations puzzle it presents to basically sympathetic and friendly states. It doesn't help that the OAS leadership stepped out of their lane, or that old-timers would reinvent this disaster as an outpost of Cold War contestation.

I'm talking about Holness' polite dismissal of Comrade Ralph Gonsalves' archaic bluster, and Kamina Johnson-Smith's sober statement to the Senate, in which, I think, they're steering the correct course.

It seems to me that they're getting it just about right: respecting Venezuela's sovereignty while signalling disapproval of the human tragedy and the Government's role in it.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.