Once an adventurous destination for expats interested in working in the oil, mining, steel and food processing industries, Venezuela has now become a dangerous location in which to find a new home.US embassy advice places Venezuela in the third of four risk categories, advising that you reconsider plans to travel there; other government bodies such as the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) echo these warnings. But if family and work commitments means you have to go, how safe are you in Venezuela?
The Political Climate
Late president Hugo Chavez, leader of the United Socialist Party (PSUV), either used the country’s rich oil reserves to lift millions out of poverty, or squandered the chance to build a good economy, depending on who you listen to! Following the death of Chavez in 2013, Nicolas Maduro, also of the PSUV, was elected as president on the promise of continuing Chavez’s policies. These included extensive welfare and housing schemes, with about 95 percent of the substantial costs being covered by oil revenues.
Unfortunately, oil prices have subsequently plummeted. A boom in fracking has doubled oil production in the USA; Libya and Iraq’s oil production increased as their political situations settled; Saudi Arabia increased its oil production in the hope it would undermine and contract the USA fracking industry; and the ending of sanctions against Iran allowed it to start exporting oil again. There was increasingly more supply than demand, and the price per barrel of crude oil has not returned to the highs of 2014.
In response to the plummeting oil revenues, social welfare programmes in Venezuela have been severely cut or collapsed, and as the economy struggled, political unrest grew. A number of significant legal and political events lead the opposition to assert that the president was aiming to replace democracy with a one man rule.
Meanwhile, oil production in the country has also significantly fallen, bringing the economy into yet more turmoil. With the exception of 2002, when oil production was interrupted during turbulent industrial action, 2017 saw the lowest production rates in almost three decades.
Venezuela pays hefty interest on its sovereign bonds because of its history of late payment, and now it has defaulted on some of that debt. The $1.2 billion it has not paid so far is not itself seen as a major default, but markets are concerned whether the further $60 billion dollar bonds are at risk. The government in Venezuela rejects international interference, and relations with the International Monetary Fund were cut off in 2007.
Economic observers are genuinely worried about the risk of economic collapse, hyperinflation and default that face Venezuela today.
The Impact Of These Problems
Families living in poverty in Venezuela are finding it hard to survive. Social welfare systems have collapsed at exactly the same time prices have risen out of reach, even for basics.
As food shortages have become commonplace, even basic foods have become too expensive for low income families to buy. Recent weight loss is normal amongst the majority of the population. People are struggling to feed their children.
Meanwhile the government cannot afford to import the medicines and equipment needed in hospitals. Adults and children alike are dying because of hospital shortages.
The country needs serious amounts of international aid and assistance, but the leadership views international agencies and governments with suspicion.
Expat Safety In Venezuela
Expats who have lived in Venezuela for many years will remember enjoying a decent nightlife and getting around on public transport. Expats were occasionally targeted by petty criminals, but serious crime was rare. Unfortunately, that has all changed.
Ordinary Venezuelan people are now desperate to feed themselves and their families. They have few options and little hope that things will change anytime soon. Expats are easily identified, and are seen as a possible source of money where few other options exist.
In addition to petty crimes such as pickpocketing, expats walking the streets can be targeted for muggings. Those who stand up to the thieves may be physically assaulted. Home burglary, which promises of a haul of possessions, food and perhaps even cash, can attract gangs, who may bribe building maintenance staff to turn the CCTV off. Any unfortunate householder who interrupts a home invasion is at genuine risk of a severe assault or even murder.
Firearms are easily obtained, so armed robberies in homes, shops and banks are frequent. Many members of the public arm themselves and retaliate when threatened during a robbery. Expats are therefore vulnerable to very frightening and life changing experiences should they be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Carjackings are also on the rise. Criminals will bump into cars to make the drivers stop, or even set up a fake police road block and then rob drivers at gunpoint.
Even more seriously, there has been a significant rise in kidnappings in Venezuela. Sometimes the victim will only be held for a short while; in fear of their life, they may be forced to empty their bank account at a cash machine. In other cases, relatives in Venezuela and abroad are forced to pay thousands of dollars to obtain the release of a kidnapping victim; sometimes the gang decides to murder their victim even after payment has been received so there are no witnesses.
The key locations from which people are kidnapped are homes, hotels, airports and taxis. Local people do not complete surveys or any other unofficial forms about their households, to avoid giving potential kidnappers easy access to information about their family members or wealth.
Venezuela now has one of the highest murder rates in the world. In 2016, an average of 60 people a day were murdered. That’s 59 murders per 100,000 residents. More than 400 of these victims were engaged in security work, such as police officers, members of the military and personal bodyguards; they are often targeted so their weapons can be stolen.
When things go wrong, trying to get police or court action is likely to add another layer of problems. Given all the things going wrong for the nation and its citizens, police sympathy for a comparatively wealthy expat who has been a victim of a crime may be limited. Victim support will not be provided. Very few cases make it to court, yet alone result in a conviction. With justice being seen as out of reach in the slums and deprived inner cities, reports of lynchings are often well received by local people, and police intervention to stop them happening is frowned upon.
Staying Safe In Venezuela
Obviously you should bear in mind the official advice to reconsider travel to Venezuela. Your safest course of action is not to go to the country.
However, if you absolutely must visit or move to Venezuela, be aware of the risks at all times and adapt your behaviour accordingly. Expats in Venezuela who have lived through the changes of the past four years report that they can only fully relax when they leave the country for a break. The rest of the time they exercise constant vigilance.
Firstly, think about how and when you leave your home. Dress unobtrusively and without jewellery, expensive watches or phones on display. Keep your cash and cards in a hidden and safe place away from opportunistic pickpockets. Don’t assume that well dressed people or those wearing official looking uniforms are law abiding citizens; they could be dressed like that to lull victims into a false sense of security, so be wary about physical and social contact.
All public transport and relaxed walks are now out of the question. Travel only in a secure, reliable car with tinted windows so you or your party cannot be easily seen and assessed by potential carjackers. Armoured cars are becoming common for those who can afford them. It is sometimes difficult to obtain gasoline for such vehicles however, so be aware of your fuel gauge before you leave home.
Do not leave your home after dark, but also don’t assume that you are safe in daylight. Avoid unfamiliar areas, alleys and remote locations. Even queues should be avoided, whether in a bank, supermarket or pharmacy, as violence can erupt suddenly.
You might see a day at the beach as a chance to unwind. Unfortunately, beach visitors have been targeted by armed thieves on a number of occasions.
Do not go anywhere near a protest or a location where people are gathering. If you keep enough bottles of water and food supplies in your home you will be better prepared to stay inside if protests or violent activity is happening near you. Protests can quickly turn violent, and the police use tear gas. Also be aware that power cuts and interruptions to the water supply are frequent and unpredictable.
If getting a taxi, make sure you use a reputable firm that is also used by other people you know. Even then, do not use your expensive phone or show any valuables you are carrying. If the taxi driver overcharges you, try to see this as the cost of getting to your destination safely, and not a reason to get into an argument.
When taking cash out of an ATM, you may be using a hacked machine or be being watched by a thief. Only use a well-lit machine in an area where there are plenty of other people around to help if you get into difficulty. Check the machine for any signs of tampering. Once you have withdrawn your cash, quickly hide it somewhere safe and secure. Do not allow anyone to bump into you or follow you. Be especially careful of your route and aware of the people around you for the rest of the trip.
Ensure your accommodation is in a good area away from the slums. CCTV and heavy locks will come as standard, but be aware it only takes one unscrupulous or desperate employee to turn off the cameras and obtain a duplicate key.
If anyone tries to make you sign something in a language you don’t understand, write a note against your signature stating that you do not understand the document. This is useful if you are forced to sign some sort of legal document or are being conned by a corrupt official at the airport.
The risk of theft is so high you should keep at least two different copies of all key documents in different locations, preferably one back home. Keep lists of contact numbers in case your phone is stolen, and change all passwords for accounts that your phone had access to.
Avoid domestic flights and small airlines in the country. The maintenance and safety of many airplanes is a matter of concern.
Areas Of Venezuela To Avoid
Even if you are prepared to take on the risks of living in Venezuela, there are some areas of the country that should be avoided at all costs. Drug traffickers and illegal armed groups roam these areas, meaning you have a high risk of being kidnapped or murdered if they find you.
The areas that the US Embassy and the UK FCO advise you to keep away from are:
– within 80km (50 miles) of the Colombian border in the states of Zulia, Tachira, Barinas, Apure and Bolívar
– within 80 km (50 miles) of the Colombian border in Amazonas state, as far south as 100 km (62 miles) south of Puerto Ayacucho
– within 40km (25 miles) of the rest of the Colombian border
Also note that the border with Columbia is now only open to foot traffic.
In conclusion, only travel to in Venezuela if you absolutely need to. Once there, live carefully and with constant planning, and stay vigilant. As you will frequently read in the newspapers, Venezuela is not for the faint-hearted.