Down the track to our remote home in Venezuela we see a dust cloud rising and the distant form of a moving vehicle. I ready the dogs while El Colombiano – our old stalwart finca hand – dutifully fetches his rifle. My mother in law orders the kids inside the house and my wife grabs her pistol. Then we hear the pre-agreed tune from the vehicle’s horn. It’s OK this time. Relief all round. It’s Chilino in his water truck, come to deliver us our weekly tank of drinking water. The dogs are stood down and El Colombiano returns to tending tomatoes; cursing Chilino for not using his cell phone.
Since the death of Chavez in March 2013, things have spiralled into total chaos in this country. No-one is safe. I never knew the pre-Chavez years, which were bounteous but unfair. Still, when I married my wife from Ciudad Bolivar in 2008, we could happily go into town unarmed and sip coffee on terrazas, or safely drive into Caracas for a steak and enjoy a swim in the sunshine in the pool on the roof of Hotel El Palace. Nowadays the local town is no longer safe to enter, the big hotels of Caracas are havens for President Maduro’s drug lord pals and their trigger-happy lackeys. Any overnight visit I make to the capital is dressed in the blood red of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and spent in the pay-by-hour sex hotels, where I’m sure there are hidden cameras in the mirror-clad rooms but at least you can pay anonymously by cash for a safe night and a clean shower without the worry of your ID setting off the Chavistas’ alarm bells in the more salubrious hotels.
The opposition to Maduro – I am a proud member of jailed Leopoldo López’ political party Voluntad Popular – is growing and the protests you see on the streets of the capital are gigantic. Even many of the Chavistas have had enough of this regime.
Last week I chatted with Juana Mata, a Chavez supporter, in the former oil town of Punta de Mata in Monagas State, and she looked back on the Chavez years fondly but has no time for Maduro, who she considers not fit for high office: “Before el líder bolivariano (Chavez) we poor had nothing,” she told me while helping out at her son’s carpentry business near the central bus station, “and with Maduro we are returning that way. He is not competent. He is not charismatic and if there was an election I would not vote for him as I did in the past.”
At Tobaco’s bar in the city of Maturin (its squid tasca are the best in the East), the locals cannot see a solution to the political chaos gripping the country. “Either Maduro flees with his cronies or he will be killed,” is the blunt assessment of one customer called Paco, “there will be a bloodbath if he tries to stay on.” The waitress, who does not want to give me her name, asks me if she can come to London. A student in the bar named Danielys pleads for help from Trump: “tell him to send his gunboats and Top Guns to remove Maduro,” she begs, “or we’re all doomed.”
I personally think Trump should stay out of Venezuela. After all, American meddling is just what the Chavistas want. Serious economic sanctions will only harm the civilian population while providing the regime with an easy excuse for the country’s economic woes. Heavy-handed coercive measures from the US that many hawks have been demanding for years will swing those Chavistas who are losing faith in the Bolivarian Revolution back to Maduro.
What’s needed? Behind-the-scenes freezing of the regime (including the Generals’) cash sitting in Ven bonds and offshore hideaways – most of this has been achieved by Trump’s sound team. Ruthless prosecution of the narcotraffickers keeping the Maduro regime afloat. And along with the stick, a carrot: a safe haven for the Chavistas to flee to in Honduras or some other backstop when they are made to realise that their time really is up.
To these recommended measures, I would add one proviso: Venezuela has uranium reserves and there’s a growing Iranian presence over here. In fact, under Maduro there are more visitors from the Middle East to Venezuela than ever before, with the first Salafi groups being spotted at Caracas airport a while back. These are not just the moanings of Haaretz – there is real substance to these rumours.
Both outspoken critics of the United States, Chávez and Maduro have been vocal supporters of Iran’s right to develop a complete nuclear fuel cycle despite UN sanctions. And recently there has been increased Iranian presence around sites in the south where heavy water appears naturally.
If Trump’s administration sees a pressing need, like US national security, for regime change and clearly communicates to the Venezuelan people their motivations – promising free and fair elections within a few months after regime change – the stars and stripes will be waved widely on Venezuela’s streets. Venezuela will also be free of extreme Islam in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, Chilino has credit in his phone.