In 1498, Christopher Columbus came to Venezuela’s eastern coast and was convinced that he had found paradise on Earth. Upon visiting the nation’s Los Roques archipelago, I can see why. Los Roques’ more than 300 islands, its white-powder beaches, lagoons and coral reefs are all still pristine. Neither giant hotels nor expansive tourist developments can be found in the area.
Los Roques was designated a national park in 1972, and, in one of the Venezuelan government’s most highly regarded achievements, all development of any kind are prohibited on most of the archipelago’s beaches and islands. Because of these anti-development efforts, I imagine that Los Roques is not much changed from the idyllic archipelago that welcomed European explorers more than 500 years ago. But, ironically, in Venezuela one can go from paradise to hell very rapidly.
On the 100-mile flight from Los Roques to Caracas, the blue-green sea beneath soon gives way to the crowded neighborhoods and slums perched on the hills surrounding the capital. Traffic in the city crawls at a maddeningly slow pace. But while no new roads have been constructed in Caracas for decades, this is a far smaller matter than the one Chavez doesn’t want the world to know about: Venezuela’s rising violence. About 19,000 people were killed in Venezuela last year. In this nation of 29 million, one person is murdered every 30 minutes.
Indeed, Venezuela is one of the most dangerous countries on the planet: On some weekends more people are killed there than in Afghanistan or in any other war zone. Like Mexico (a nation with a population of 112 million where 12,903 murders occurred between January and September of last year) Venezuela has become a violent place. Violence in Venezuela is no longer a matter of isolated incidents. A few days ago the Mexican ambassador and his wife were abducted and released after a few hours. According to a newspaper report, at least seven diplomats have been victims of violence in Caracas in the last year and a half. Chile’s consul general, a Bolivian military attache and the Vietnamese ambassador’s son were all abducted. A British diplomat and another staffer from the Mexican Embassy were also attacked recently, and the Greek ambassador’s residence was burglarized.
Chavez was treated last year for cancer, though the details about his prognosis are unclear. While he has insisted that he has been cured, recent press reports indicate that his health may be deteriorating. Of course, the most harmful thing an ill person can do is to deny that he is ill; Chavez does the same thing with crime and violence in Venezuela. As long as he doesn’t recognize that violence is a major issue, it isn’t necessary to find a solution.
If Los Roques is an earthly paradise, then violent, chaotic Caracas is an infernal trap.))