by Elliott Stark
Ask anyone who has ever spent much time fishing in Venezuela and the conversation always goes the same way. It starts with an exclamation. “I love Venezuela. The fishing is…” They then spend the next few minutes spinning outlandish-sounding tales that would seem farfetched were they not similarly repeated by other captains who fished in Venezuela. Stories about having multiple blue marlin, multiple white marlin and a sail or two in the spread at the same time. Stories about weeks filled with multiple double slams.
After talking about the fishing, they then transition to “The people are…” The next few minutes describe the hospitality and friendliness of the Venezuelan people. Most also provide recollections of some of the amazing fishing talent that gathered to fish the La Guaira Bank. The captains who fished there were too many and too influential to mention here.
Next, inevitably comes the expression of regret. “What a shame what has happened there…” After the almost mournful statement of sadness, whoever is doing the talking will usually recount the lead up of events that resulted in their departure. The story usually involves describing a fair bit of back and forth – “The fishing was good and the experience was so great… but it just wasn’t safe any longer…” There is usually an underlying sadness in these recollections – it seems as none of those who spent a lot of time fishing in Venezuela ever actually wanted to leave. Most describe their eventual departure as being forced out by circumstance.
After the stories and the expression of sadness at having to leave always comes the same thing – “I sure hope it gets better. I’d go back in a second.” Most anyone who has ever spent time in Venezuela, it seems, dreams of one day returning. With the return of political and economic stability there will be a trail of sportfishers steaming south from all over the United States, the Caribbean and Central America. This stream of boat traffic will be matched in size and franticness of pace by only by the Spanish Armada (Columbus first visited Venezuela in 1498).
What’s Happening in Venezuela
Before going any further we must make one thing clear. While most of those reading this may have only thought of Venezuela as it relates to fishing, everything else pales in comparison to what is happening to the people of the country. Venezuela is in the midst of a crushing economic depression and a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions. There are shortages of food, medicines and other basic necessities. Crime rates have sky rocketed, the country’s public health care system has collapsed. There are reports of mass hunger. By some estimates, 80% of Venezuelan households lack access to sufficient food.
Economically, the country is gripped by one of the worst economic depressions in the history of Western civilization. The country is experiencing hyper inflation of its currency of disastrous proportions. The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation will reach 10,000,000 percent in 2019. Yes, that’s 10 million percent. (Inflation is an economic term that describes the increase in prices for goods and services and a decrease in the purchasing power of a currency. To put this into perspective, at 10,000,000 percent inflation it would take $10 million dollars in cash to buy something that costs one dollar.) The result of such hyper inflation makes money near worthless. It is also causing a shortage of cash (because people need to carry a backpack full of cash, and wait for hours in line, to buy a loaf of bread and some eggs).
The situation is so bad that is has caused a mass exodus from the country. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that some 3.4 million people have emigrated from Venezuela since 2014. This is the highest rate of fleeing from a country in modern history – higher even than from people leaving Syria.
President Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998. Upon his death in 2013, his hand chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, took power. Chavez nationalized the oil and gas industry in Venezuela, forcing out private industry. Populist social programs designed to redistribute wealth and corrupt moves to pay for military support lay at the base of the regime’s popularity. Between these programs, state sponsored television and intolerance (jailing and worse) of political dissent, Chavez’ regime was able to maintain control.
With the continued tanking of the Venezuelan economy – now recognized as the world’s worst performing economy, and the shortages of food, medicine, and other necessities, support for Maduro has waned. A challenger – Juan Guiado (a 35-year-old leader of the National Assembly from La Guaira) – has named himself interim president. The Venezuelan Constitution states that the President of the National Assembly has the authority to take power in the absence of a legitimate president. Guaido and his supporters claim that when Maduro changed the elections and the rules last year – invalidating his claim to victory – this mandate was due in 2019. Guaido has consolidated support from the many factions that oppose Chavez/ Maduro’s regime within Venezuela and has been recognized as the legitimate leader of Venezuela by 65 countries – including the US, the European Union and much of Latin America.
While the outcome of all of this is far from certain, it could well be a watershed moment in the political history of the country. Guaido has also provided something that has been in short supply in Venezuela for a long time. A vehicle for hope.
How Did Venezuela Get Here
Venezuela was once, not too long ago, the richest economy in Latin America. The country is blessed by an incredible base of natural resources – including the world’s largest oil reserve. It was this bounty that was central to the stories of boats buying fuel for three cents per liter in Venezuela. Oil – its price fluctuation and misguided economic policies surrounding it – is also at the heart of the Venezuelan economic meltdown.
Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998. Chavez’ “Bolivarian Revolution” was marked by increasingly populist foreign and economic policies. Much of his emphasis was on distribution of wealth downward – something that resulted in mass popularity. In 2001, Chavez passed laws designed to redistribute land and wealth. In 2005, large ranches and estates were taken by the government. In 2006, Venezuela forcibly nationalized oil and gas, banking and most large industry. With the government owning most large industry, the country lost a majority of its private employment options.
At the time of Chavez’ election in 1998, the price of oil was $7 to $9 per barrel. By 2004, prices soared to upwards of $100 per barrel. With oil producing more and more money, the government of Venezuela (which owned the economy) became less diversified and more and more dependent on the high price of oil for economic health. The country bet its entire stake on oil – nationalization of (government-owned) industry killed manufacturing and productivity fell sharply. Venezuela exported oil and imported nearly everything else – becoming virtually entirely dependent on high oil prices for economic health. By 2012, oil accounted for 95% of all of Venezuelan exports.
Despite the amount of money pouring into the country from high oil prices, the Venezuelan government borrowed heavily from 2004 to 2014. The public debt increased six-fold during this period. In spite of all of the oil money and the funds borrowed, the government did not create a sovereign capital fund or other savings mechanism to hedge against a fall in oil prices.
In 2014, oil prices fell. Because of the country’s high rate of borrowing (and because much of its collateral for loans is tied to the price of oil), capital markets for Venezuela tightened and the country no longer had access to loans. Debt sets in shortly thereafter and cash was soon in short supply. Because Venezuela relied on imports of most everything except for oil, it needed to import food, medicine and other necessities.
Without access to loans, the country did not have the cash to purchase these things. With fewer imports coming in, prices on basic goods began to rise. To combat rising costs, the government established price controls (mandating the price of what goods could be sold for). This cycle led to inflation, the devaluing of the Venezuelan Bolivar (the nation’s currency), and longer and longer lines for increasingly scare necessities. The recession that began in Venezuela in 2013 continues unabated – it is recognized as the largest recession in the history of the western world.
The Political State of Venezuela Right Now
Hugo Chavez died of cancer in 2013. Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ vice president, was his hand-selected successor. He inherited a corrupt government, a pile of failed economic policies and a situation that was spiraling out of control on many levels. Maduro’s presidency is largely an extension of the Chavez regime. As economic and social problems continued to pile up, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to protest against Maduro in 2016. In the lead up to the 2018 election, Maduro jailed leaders the National Assembly (Venezuela’s legislative body) and appointed a new governmental body to administer the election.
While Maduro claimed victory, widespread claims of vote rigging and voter coercion opened the door for Juan Guaido – the leader of the National Assembly – to question the validity of the election results and proclaim himself interim president until a new, fair election can be held (something which the Venezuelan constitution grants him authority to do). Guaido, who favors a market economy, was immediately recognized by some 65 countries around the world as the acting leader of Venezuela. The United States and others have made it imminently clear that Guaido should face no harm from the Maduro regime.
While the outcome of all of this is far from certain, Guaido provides hope for a people and a nation who have long suffered. While the economic and social problems and the political turmoil of Venezuela will not be something that can be overcome tomorrow – how Guaido’s challenge to Maduro’s regime will play out is far from certain – there is for the first time in a long time a tangible vehicle of hope.
The eyes of the world are watching. Many displaced Venezuelans around the world are watching. And the sportfishing world is watching too… In addition to the prayers coming from around the world, there is hope for Venezuela.
The Venezuelan Perspective
Rafa Martinez Tovar is a displaced Venezuelan currently living the Dominican Republic. Martinez’ family has been intimately involved in Venezuelan sportfishing for generations. “My grandfather was one of the founders of the Playa Grande Yachting Club in La Guaira. I have been fishing since I was six… and I am 43 now. When I was a child, I remember fishing with the greatest light tackle anglers in Venezuela – Aquiles Garcia, Gildo Bellini and Rafael “Pantaleta” Arnal. They won eight ILTTA (International Light Tackle Tournament Anglers) tournaments – still the most in history.”
“We took our boat to the DR four years ago,” Martinez says, describing the Keep Fishing, a 45-foot Rampage convertible that now fishes out of Cap Cana and Casa De Campo, “and we opened the charter service to be able to cover the boat expenses.”
“I was the third generation of my family working in the family business – the ferry company Conferry. The business turned 60 years old last August and for the first time in its history, it is not transporting people and cargo to Margarita. We used to move three million people a year back and forth to the island. Isla Margarita is home to The Margarita Hilton & Suites (once Hilton’s hotel top performer in the Caribbean for more than seven years), a radio station, a newspaper, the ferry terminal and the Margaritas Professional Basketball team Guaiqueries de Margarita. My grandfather founded the team in 1975 – it was one of the best teams in the Venezuelan Professional League. They took everything from us. That’s why I had to come to the DR.”
When describing the situation in Venezuela, Martinez is somber in his analysis. “A cartel has the country kidnapped. It’s not a single dictator, it’s a whole network. It’s a political mixture that is not easy to untangle,” he reflects insightfully. “I think Guaido is the way to go. It’s a matter of time before things change. We are positive that things will change – it’s when, not if. Six months ago, we didn’t have this view. It’s going to take time, but it’s not impossible. Guaido will reestablish the rule of Law and Democracy in our country.”
“We’ll need our people to come back – many of those who would be prepared for the recovery have left. As soon as the rule of law and democracy are reestablished, lots of our people will return.”
The situation for many Venezuelan ex-pats is understandably sensitive. When I asked if it was ok to publish his name along with the article, he didn’t hesitate. “Go ahead buddy… there’s not much more that they can do to me. VAMOS BIEN Y LA VIRGEN DEL VALLE NOS ACOMPAÑA!!!”
Jose de Veer is another of Venezuela’s displaced sportfishing community. From Puerto La Cruz in eastern Venezuela, de Veer now works as first mate on the 65-foot American Custom Black Gold that fishes out of the Dominican Republic. “All of the problems in Venezuela really effect everyone. I am almost five years living outside of Venezuela – I moved because of all of the problems,” de Veer says.
“I was working as a diesel mechanic. The problems for me started with getting parts through customs. I started to get calls from customs asking for money to get parts out,” Jose describes. “My family owns a 38-foot Bertram, the Doble Linea, that has been fully customized. Our plan was to fish it together as a charter business and live there. Now it sits there idle. My dad doesn’t like to fish without me.”
“My family is still in Venezuela – my mom, my dad, my sister and grandpa. I visited them in August 2018. I hired a guy to dive my boat and he wouldn’t accept money for payment. He said he no longer took money because it couldn’t buy him anything. He wanted some food. I asked him what he’d charge me and he said, ‘A bag of rice, a can of sardines and a bottle of rum.’ That’s what I gave him. It is really sad – people don’t believe me when I tell them about it.”
“It’s the same way with fuel. It’s less than penny to buy 500 gallons of fuel – the tip is more expensive than the bill. The people are really, really hungry. It is really bad now,” he describes. While fuel may be cheap, the basic necessities are increasingly scarce and expensive. “My dad used to live very well on $150 per week. Now everything is really expensive and it seems like prices are doubling every day. What they air on the news is so sad… and everything is true. The government is trying to get rid of the middle class – they only want rich and poor people.”
“My family just went four days without electricity,” de Veer says, describing the massive country-wide 100 hour black out that occurred mid-March. “They lived on the boat running the generators, with extension cords running to the house (for the freezers). We were lucky to have the boat.”
As for his vision for the future, de Veer shares optimism about Guaido. “I think he’s doing a great job – I hope it works. He’s the only one with the balls to do it. He’s talking to the world,” he reflects. “People are dying without medicine; they are hungry and they are poor. Even if he succeeds, it will need time to change. The situation won’t be solved tomorrow – it will take time, patience. People need a chance to relax.”
Que viva Venezuela.