Venezuela, after midnight

As a friend of Canada’s former ambassador to Venezuela relays a
frightening recent run-in with a criminal gang, a portrait emerges of a country
in economic and political tatters. Is a new dawn possible for the South
American country?  

By: /
24 May, 2016
Caracas. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Allan Culham
By: Allan Culham

Former ambassador to the Organization of American States. 

My old tennis buddy from Caracas, Venezuela, called the other night to catch up. I have known Carlos (not his real name) since 2002 when I served for three years as Canada’s Ambassador in Venezuela. Carlos and I met on a tennis court during the National Strike of 2002/03 and have remained good friends ever since. In the 11 years since I left Venezuela, we have stayed in touch with Carlos and his wife Sylvia (again, not her real name) visiting our family homes in Washington and Ottawa.  

To start the conversation, Carlos told me that he and Sylvia were recently awakened at 2:45 a.m. by two men in their bedroom, one with a knife to Sylvia’s throat. It was later determined by police that these men were from the notorious “Spiderman Gang,” a criminal group of “professional climbers” who enter apartment buildings by scaling walls and gaining access through open stairwells.

Carlos is one of Venezuela’s most famous surgeons. He undertook his education and medical training in Caracas. He subsequently became a surgeon and worked for over 30 years in the government-run public health system. After retiring from the employ of the government, Carlos joined one of the best-known private hospitals in Caracas.  Even after retirement, Carlos continued to mentor and advise his former colleagues in the public system. His career as an eminent surgeon continued to prosper with his services always in demand from those with access to the private healthcare system. 

With a knife to her neck, Sylvia was in shock. Carlos, better able to connect with people, calmly spoke to the intruders about how he was a doctor and had worked in the poorest regions of the capital. “I have probably even treated your mothers,” he said. This seemed to have the calming effect that he wanted.  After tying up Sylvia with ropes, the negotiations started.  Carlos had always kept a safe in his apartment “just in case.” This safe contained an assortment of cash — U.S. dollars, Euros and a quantity of the local currency, Bolivars. Into the three backpacks brought by the intruders went the money, jewelry (including their wedding rings) and electronics.  In the ironic words of Carlos,  “We got lucky. Everything went fine. Thank God!”

After leaving the apartment, the gang proceeded to another to complete their night’s work. In their next break-in, the two gang members found two Venezuelan brothers who had just arrived from France for a visit. Things did not go well. When the brothers decided to resist, both were killed by the intruders. The police subsequently made the connection with the same band of criminals that entered Carlos and Sylvia’s apartment from the footprints left behind in the two locations.

Our conversation subsequently moved from the security situation to the state of the healthcare system in Venezuela. Carlos’ work has been reduced to only two operations per week due to lack of surgical supplies. Those surgical supplies that are available, rather than being discarded after the surgery, are now just sterilized and re-used until they wear out.

“Decades of economic mismanagement by first the autocratic President Hugo Chavez and later by his hand-picked successor Nicholas Maduro, have left the Venezuelan economy in tatters.”

All the foreign medical supply companies, with the exception of those that do business with the government, have now left the country. While the government hospitals do have some surgical supplies, they are not able to use them as the associated medicines, surgical equipment and testing laboratories are either not available or not working.

Medicines (especially antibiotics) are in even shorter supply with the only supplies coming into the country being provided by family members living abroad.  Those medicines that do arrive for the public system often have expiry dates of up to 18 months old. Whether it is the poor using the public health system or the rich using the private clinics, all citizens are suffering from the breakdown of the healthcare system.

As an aside, Carlos mentioned that bread is also in very tight supply with only one loaf available per person per week. Looting has started in many locations around the country.  Circumstances are so dire that even members of the police have been arrested for looting. Decades of economic mismanagement by first the autocratic President Hugo Chavez and later by his hand-picked successor Nicholas Maduro, have left the Venezuelan economy in tatters. An economy, despite holding the largest oil reserves in the Americas, that is today not able even to provide the country’s citizens with even the most basic of human requirements.

 The future? Carlos has been offered a job at a private hospital in another South American country. His very survival and that of his family depend on his being able to work. But for the moment, Carlos has chosen to stay just a little bit longer.

This month featured several marches sponsored by the Opposition to the National Electoral Council to demand that it stop stalling with the Recall Referendum process against Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro. 

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s most high-profile political prisoner, Leopoldo Lopez, remains incarcerated.  Lopez has served nearly 28 months of a 14-year sentence in a military prison, having been convicted on trumped-up charges of inciting violence and murder. Fearful of a charismatic and honest political opposition leader, President Maduro publicly convicted Lopez prior to his trial.  The court’s judges, obediently taking their cue from their autocratic leader, convicted Lopez on all charges.  The Chief Prosecutor in the case subsequently admitted that the whole case against Lopez was “fabricated” and has since fled to the U.S. for his safety.

The international media has labelled Lopez as a representative of the “hard right” in Venezuela. Nothing could be further from the truth. I met Lopez when he was the mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao where the Canadian Embassy is located. He too became a good friend and a useful contact in trying to understand the many political realities of Venezuela. While espousing political labels, I would characterize Lopez as a pragmatic centrist with an extraordinary ability to communicate with and connect to all Venezuelans, no matter their socio-economic status. His continued incarceration (and that of others) as a political prisoner in Venezuela is one of the most egregious affronts to human rights in the Americas.

Change will come to Venezuela, whether it be tomorrow, next week or sometime later this year. The current situation is not sustainable, either economically or politically.  Meanwhile Carlos waits. Should he take that surgical job outside the country? Or try to wait out what has become a personal nightmare for him and for many other Venezuelans?

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