I would strongly discourage anyone from attempting a family road trip across Venezuela.
Given the country’s severe shortages of food, fuel, water and electricity, and the high incidence of robbery, carjacking, kidnap and murder, your chances of finishing the trip are pretty much zero.
Our family nearly failed to make the crossing several years ago on the Epic journey, and that was before Venezuela’s dictators had completely destroyed the economy, demolished infrastructure and erased the rule of law. Our near failure was due to a severe shortage of sound judgment on the part of our tour leader (that would be me), who fell prey to an old-fashioned shakedown.
I walked into the scam minutes after crossing the border from Cucutá, Colombia, on the Francisco de Paula Santander International Bridge. Friends had advised us to take a taxi from the border to the bus station 31 miles away in San Cristobal in order to save time.
Time was of the essence because we hoped to catch the overnight express bus that left San Cristobal at 5:00 in the afternoon. We might have made it, had we not taken the taxi we did. The driver prolonged the normal one-and-a-half hour transit (yes, that works out to 20 miles per hour) so that just as we pulled into San Cristobal, we witnessed the 5:00 o’clock express exiting the bus station.
No worries, the cab driver told us. He had friends who could get us tickets on the next overnight bus, and introduced us to two friendly individuals. They said tickets were sold out, but they could pull some strings for us, which they evidently did.
“You can’t board at the station itself,” they announced later, when handing over the tickets. “But no worries, the bus will stop for you at the edge of town.”
The same obliging cab driver dropped us off at the appointed spot and we boarded the bus in gathering gloom. Barbara and I settled into our seats on the lower level. Ben, Molly and Lindsey, a high school friend of Molly’s who had joined us in Bogotá, climbed the stairway to the upper deck and took their seats. All was well, or so we thought.
About 15 miles outside of town the bus pulled to the side of the road and the driver came back to tell Barbara and me that our party had to get off the bus. “I have to pick up other passengers ahead,” he explained,” and I need your seats. It is impossible for you to stay on this bus.”
“You can’t be serious!” I retorted. But he was.
“Well then, give us back our money,” I said, feeling the blood drain from my face. Realizing that we were now in total darkness in a deserted stretch of jungle, I added, “And call us a taxi to take us back to town.”
“I can’t do that,” he said. “I only have half the money. You will have to find the guy who sold you the tickets to get the other half.”
And no, he could not arrange for a taxi to pick us up.
“Señor,” I said, now feeling the blood rushing back to my face and turning it red, “there is no way we are getting off this bus unless we get a full refund and a taxi back to town.”
The driver turned on his heel and went back to the front of the bus, I assumed to get reinforcements. We gathered Ben, Molly and Lindsey and told them what was happening. I can’t remember if my voice was trembling, but I was.
“Dad, let’s pray,” Ben said at once. It sounded like a good idea, better than any that our tour leader had at the moment.
So we huddled at the bottom of the stairway and prayed. I confess that it was one of the most sincere prayers I have ever uttered in my life.
No sooner had we pronounced “Amen” than a stranger appeared on the stairway.
“Is this driver trying to throw you off the bus?” he asked.
“Well, yes he is,” we said.
“This is outrageous!” the man said. “They do this all the time to foreigners. We are not going to let it happen.”
About then the driver reappeared with the conductor and the stranger got in his face. I can’t remember what he said, but it startled the driver.
The rest of the passengers in our compartment overheard the man and joined in.
“You are a disgrace!” they yelled at the driver. “Let these poor people alone, or else we are going to throw you off the bus!”
This absolutely startled the driver. Within seconds he turned on his heel and retreated. The passengers broke into boisterous cheers and applause.
The noise died down and I mustered the composure to thank our fellow travelers for their support. They waved and smiled and said that it was all good. We settled back into our seats and the bus started moving. After a while, the lights went out and we fell asleep.
We awoke in early daylight as the bus neared Caracas, the country’s capital. I said good morning to our fellow passengers and we struck up a conversation. When I asked where they were headed, they suddenly turned serious and glanced at each other.
“Well, it’s like this,” a woman said quietly. “We are shopkeepers in the Cucutá city market. Until last week, that is. A fire broke out in the market one night and entirely destroyed our shops, along with our merchandise and money.”
“We got together and pooled our money to buy tickets to Caracas in order to apply for government assistance. We hope they will help us with a loan so that we can start over.”
I was shocked. Here were people who had lost their livelihood and, in some cases, their entire life savings. Yet they remained cheerful, friendly and fun-loving. Perhaps last night’s rout of the corrupt bus driver had helped to ease their distress. I hope so. It had surely eased mine.
Their unselfish support and upbeat attitude left me with a high opinion of ordinary Venezuelans. Despite heartbreaking disaster, they still manage to be kind, generous and daring.
At this writing, heartbreaking disaster afflicts millions of Venezuelans. Almost all the country’s citizens have lost career and life savings. Poverty, malnutrition and disease are unchecked in a country that was once one of the wealthiest in South America. The crime rate is the highest in the Western Hemisphere, with one murder committed every 21 minutes and 50 persons kidnapped every day. One in five of these crimes is reportedly committed by police officers or members of the military.
The onset of Venezuela’s disaster began in 1998, when voters elected a former army colonel, Hugo Chavez, president. A strident critic of traditional politicians and self-proclaimed champion of the common man, Chavez launched what he called the "Bolivarian Revolution,” named for the country’s founder, Simon Bolivar.
Bolivar was himself a revolutionary, one of history’s most renowned, in fact. Orphaned at age nine and educated in Europe, he enlisted in the War of Independence against Spain in 1810. His military skill and shrewd ability to forge strategic alliances elevated Bolivar to Supreme Commander of the revolutionary army. By the end of the 15-year conflict, Bolivar had succeeded in liberating territory that today encompasses the nations of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
Those five countries were originally one. The vision of the Great Liberator, as he had come to be known, was a united republic stretching from the Caribbean coast to the southern Cone of South America. It would have been the largest and wealthiest nation on the continent, had Bolivar’s vision been realized.
However, Bolivia and Peru soon voted to go their separate ways. Despite the defections, Bolivar doggedly pursued the dream of a “Gran Colombia”, narrowly escaping assassination for his trouble. Disillusioned with politics, he resigned his presidency in 1830 and died the same year of tuberculosis. Bolivar was 47.
Hugo Chavez appropriated Bolivar’s name and fame for his political movement, promising his countrymen a revolution that would carry Venezuela to a glorious future, following in the footsteps of the Liberator himself. But just as Bolivar failed to fulfill his vision, Chavez also failed. In fact, his revolution has ruined Bolivar’s homeland to an extent that no one could have predicted.
Chavez funded his revolution with profits from Venezuela’s huge petroleum industry. The country owns the largest proven oil reserves in the world, so Chavez had a lot of money to spend, especially because oil prices were at record levels in the first years of his presidency.
He created the Bolivarian Mission, a social program to provide health care and sports training to poor communities. The Mission constructed thousands of medical clinics and staffed them with thousands of doctors imported from Cuba.
But like so many of Chavez’s promises, this one went unfulfilled. In 2007, the Venezuelan Medical Federation discovered that 70 percent of the Bolivarian clinics were either unfinished or abandoned.
If Chavez seemed unable to deliver on his promises, he was even more inept at stewarding the country’s immense wealth. In 2003, he quashed an oil worker’s strike by firing 18 thousand veteran employees of Petroleos de Venezuela, the massive state-owned company that generated one-quarter of GDP. He replaced them with his loyal followers, most of whom knew nothing about operating oil refineries, pumping stations or pipelines.
Oil production steadily declined, along with GDP, as poorly maintained plants failed and infrastructure decayed. When oil prices fell sharply between 2014 and 2016, the already battered national economy fell off a cliff. The bolivar, Venezuela’s national currency, became worthless. World-record hyperinflation reduced wages to pennies a day, even for highly skilled professionals. Three out of four Venezuelans fell into extreme poverty. The average citizen lost 19 pounds because of food scarcity.
Nicolas Maduro, who occupied the presidency when Chavez died of cancer in 2013, declared an "economic emergency.” To resolve the crisis, he suspended the National Assembly (Venezuela’s Congress) and replaced the entire Supreme Court with persons of his choosing. In other words, Maduro took over the entire government.
The repressive move obviously did not solve the problem, but it did further entrench the dictatorship Chavez had instigated. The exodus of economic refugees swelled to from 1.5 to 6 million. At this writing, one in five Venezuelans live outside their country.
But what of the other four in five? Well, as you probably have figured out by now, they must be determined and resourceful folks who can face heartbreaking disaster and still keep going.
Our cross-country bus trip ended at the homes of two of my friends named Zabdiel. They are the only two Zabdiels that I know in the entire world and they both live in eastern Venezuela. They go by the nickname “Zabdy,” so here I will call them Zabdy One and Zabdy Two.
Our first stop was the home of Zabdy One, a cozy, two-story house that could accommodate all five of us. The three days of warm hospitality we enjoyed there was a welcome break from cross-country bus travel, for sure.
Zabdy One spent his entire career working as a Technician in the oil industry, but was fired when Petroleos de Venezuela went on strike in 2003. Only two years away from retirement, he lost all his pension and benefits. He scrambled to support the family with occasional jobs in construction or machinery repair. Despite the unfair hardship he endured, he maintains an upbeat disposition, always ready with a joke, a warm handshake or an idea for some fun.
Zabdy One has a heart for God and the indigenous tribal peoples of Venezuela. When the occasional job earns him a bit of extra cash, he spends it on the four-hour trip to the tribal settlements to preach and teach Bible. I had a couple opportunities over the years to go with him on these trips, and always noticed another new church that had sprung up in villages between visits.
With our travel funds, we bankrolled a trip to the tribal communities so that Zabdy One could visit his friends and then drop us off at the home of Zabdy Two. The trip to the settlements took us past wide, green pastures where immense herds of cattle used to graze. That was before Hugo Chavez expropriated the ranches because their owners opposed his politics, and turned over management to his friends in the army. The generals soon annihilated the herds, slaughtering some to feed their troops and selling off the rest to line their pockets. The empty pastures are merely one illustration of why Venezuela suffers acute food shortages these days.
Zabdy Two is the son of Venezuelan missionaries to indigenous tribal peoples. He literally grew up on the rivers of eastern Venezuela, traveling with his parents in motorboats and dugout canoes to spread the gospel. He later earned an engineering degree in the U.S. and became a specialist in oil spill cleanup. After traveling the world for petroleum companies, he returned to Venezuela with a sizable chunk of change to invest in making his homeland a better place.
The idea Zabdy Two had for doing this connected his love of the jungle with broad experience in environmental repair. Christian ecologists call it Creation Care.
He discovered that turtles were fast becoming extinct in the rivers of eastern Venezuela, largely because tribal hunters were selling turtle eggs for cash to feed their families. He researched the price of turtle eggs and began offering the hunters a bit more than market price for their eggs. He soon cornered the market on turtle eggs.
He incubates the eggs and then raises the young turtles in large cement tanks. Once they reach appropriate size--about four inches in diameter--he releases them back to the wild, several thousand at a time.
In addition to repopulating the rivers of eastern Venezuela with tiny turtles, Zabdy Two also hosts visitors in his rustic riverside resort. During our stay there, we enjoyed savory meals of fish and fried plantains, long hours snoozing in hammocks, and fishing for piranha.
Before Venezuela became too dangerous for tourists, Zabdy Two hosted teams of international volunteers who traveled the rivers with him to share the gospel with tribal communities and deliver medical and dental care.
At this writing, no one can predict the future of Venezuela. Most Venezuelans, indeed most of the world, fervently hope that a competent and democratic government will replace the present dictatorship and create conditions for economic recovery and a return to the prosperous and pleasant country that Venezuela once was.
But if that is to happen, it will require measures profoundly more effective than those that have been attempted up until now. Opposition politicians have tried numerous times to unseat first Chavez and now Maduro, but to no avail. International pressure, including severe economic sanctions, harsh condemnation of the regime and threats of military intervention, has changed nothing. Venezuela’s own security forces, packed with Chavez’s old military cronies and corrupt policemen, certainly have no interest in bringing down the dictatorship.
So that leaves the liberation of Venezuela squarely in the hands of its ordinary citizens. Determined and resourceful people who refuse to surrender to fear and despair are key to overcoming the country’s evils. These are the Venezuelans who, like the two Zabdys and the lovely folks on our overnight bus, endure heartbreaking disaster every day, but still have the faith to be kind, generous and daring.
Next time: Amazonia