A branch of heaven


Back in the 1970s, people used to refer to Caracas as “a branch of heaven” (“la sucursal del cielo“). As a maracucho, I never really got why people said that. It seemed like typical caraqueño BS to me, unnecessary chutzpah for celebrating a city that, even back then, was merely … OK. As an occasional visitor, still in my teenage years, my impression of Caracas was basically: nice weather, lovely vegetation, traffic spawned by Satan himself, populated with people who weren’t all that nice.

I don’t need to worry about the saying anymore. As the Argentine blog Infobae confirms, Caracas is now the world’s deadliest city. It’s a branch of heaven alright … if you understand that as being the doorstep of the Great Beyond.

Sucursal del cielo

The data they used to come up with this comparison comes from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. And while the comparison is not quite apples-to-apples (the data from Caracas comes from 2009, while other cities’ data comes from more recent years), we know it’s all true.

I was thinking about these figures coming on the heels of a report from América Economía saying that Caracas was the worst city in the continent to do business in. It seems as though there is nowhere to hide the shame – every new day brings with it a brand new reason to be apalled at what’s going on in our coutry. Why not say it … the feeling of embarassment has simply become inescapable.

For example, the other day I went to listen to Niall Ferguson speak. The talk was about his own particular theories on historical events – about hierarchies, networks, and revolutions and what not. It was all very intellectual, having nothing to do with the pesky banality of day-to-day events.

The questions began, and at about the fourth question, the issue of Venezuela snuck up unexpectedly.

I cringed.

As I thought he would, he said Venezuela was a basket case. He talked about going to Venezuela and witnessing a shooting in a barrio – right there, in front of him. He said that the people who were with him told him the police are part of the problem. He ended his answer by saying “let’s not talk about Venezuela because we’ll all just leave here in a state of depression.”

Too late, Niall. Too late, I thought.

I don’t know about you, but cringing when I read something about Venezuela, when someone asks me about Venezuela, when I overhear a conversation about Venezuela, when I bump into someone who says “yeah, I´ve been to Caracas” … it’s become a daily ritual for me.

“La sucursal del cielo” … let’s see what this week has in store for us.

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  1. Last week I talked to a Mennonite from my region, and not just about new shingles for the roof next spring. When he asked what other cities I had lived in, I mentioned that I grew up in Caracas, but that it’s a basket case now, as is the country.

    “Isn’t Venezuela communist now?” he asked.

    His question stopped me cold.

    “You could say that,” I said. “But even communism has a rigid organization. It’s more like a thugocracy masquerading as a democracy.”

  2. “let’s not talk about Venezuela because we’ll all just leave here in a state of depression.”

    My wife says something like this fairly often, when unsuspecting people learn she’s from Venezuela and start to ask questions. Or when it comes up that she can’t leave the country (the US) because she doesn’t have a passport (9 months and waiting), or there are no flights for her mom to visit, etc etc etc

    It’s exhausting….each answer invites a confused face and another question. It’s best to just say “it’s a mess” and change the subject.

      • On a recent trip, when I passed U.S. Immigration, the Immigration Officer was asking me about conditions. She commented that she keeps hearing about how bad things are, but she keeps seeing Venezuelan women coming dressed to the nines and carrying expensive handbags. How can that be? How to explain in a brief and concise manner?… Very difficult…

          • All true, but it still doesn’t explain it. Rodrigo was right. To really explain it takes hours and your audience must have an ample capacity for suspension of disbelief.

          • My comment dealt with why the women who live in a complete social and economic chaos strut around dressed to the nines. “Cabeza ‘e name” would also simplify the matter. But you’re right. None of these answers will be sufficient to describe what’s happening to Vzla. Understanding what’s happening is a lot easier among those who are familiar with magical realism.

          • How about this:
            Planned chaos to obstruct communications, to confuse the population now chasing scarce resources, to annihilate vocal dissent, and to create two social classes: those that govern (the elite — lay and military, Venezuelan and Cuban) and do business with that level, and those who must submit to being governed (the proletariat).

            Gravy train for the elite: the drug trade, now with ample corridors in Venezuela, creates a schadenfreude in that it renders addicts of those who live in the Imperio, and handsomely lines the pockets of those who allow this corridor.

          • Venezuela has the highest per cap consumption rates in the world for cocaine and paste. You keep thinking about the USA but the addiction problem is down there and spreading throughout region. Very hard to quantify nowadays but it was in the past and things have only gotten worse. There has never been much in terms of real help for addicts down there. Always been that way going back to the 70s and I did my bit with folks you would never believe.

        • Because most venezuelan women put “looking nifty” over things such as “eating” or “living”.

          Primero muerta que sencilla.

        • Hi… I have lived in the US half my live (I’m 38 years old), 14 years in NYC. I left Venezuela for various reasons, and I had no emotional attachment to Venezuela other than my family. I don’t seek out Venezuelans and have no Venezuelan friends. But, my ears, trained from traveling through Venezuela with two parents who are linguists, is pretty well attuned to Venezuelan accents. I can pick them up in a crowd, and I can probably pick out a Venezuelan from a crowd with above chance accuracy. For years and years, I never saw Venezuelans in NYC. It was a rare occurrence. If I saw one or a family, they were tourists wandering around Central Park or one of the museums. Now, I can guarantee myself an unpleasant encounter with a Boliburges any day at any time of day during any time of the year simply by walking the stretch of fifth Avenue populated with the luxury brand stores or the regular shopping stores. They are easy to spot with their bags of designer clothes (the average one which is likely to be holding merchandise worth more than a CADIVI quota; draw your own conclusions). They are usually garishly rude people, the stereotypical nouveau rich that the European aristocracy liked to describe, except worse because they spending a fortune here and declaiming the evils of the empire in the same breath. Also of note, their prejudiced and racist behavior make me cringe, but that’s a tale for another comment. This is all to say, those rich ladies dressed to the nines, are likely dressed like that with the money that Venezuela is bleeding through good old fashioned corruption.

          • I’ve come across those characters in the airports of Madrid, Toronto and Miami, and yes, their particular behavior is cringe-worthy. A couple years ago in Pearson, we were waiting to get on the plane back home and they were calling passengers by their boarding group. As expected, all venezuelans went to stand near the gate except for a family of unmistakable boliburgueses that got in line with the first-class folks. They were then rejected because (surprisingly) it wasn’t their turn to board, so they stood slightly aside to let the people behind them through. It wasn’t until the attendants asked them 4 times to step out of the line that they angrily did so.
            My sister lives in NYC too but she says the most rude and hateful venezuelans are found at 51st street.

          • She’s already there and she’s attuned to your likes thus she did her fall and winter clothes shopping in Toronto where nobody would recognize her except maybe you.

      • Rodrigo,
        El mismo para mi.
        When someone brings up the topic of Venezuela, I typically answer: “Don’t get me started.”
        Really. Get ready to set aside a few hours to hear what I have to say.

        People outside of Venezuela have little knowledge of the depth of deterioration in this once decent country.
        Moreover, most think the Cuban revolution was a great model for all countries. Then there’s the corruption, human rights violations, granting legal immunity to government supporters, foreign policy of all the worst leaders in the world……

        Sorry, you got me started.

      • I recently met up with an Australian friend that I hadn’t seen in years and he wanted me to tell him about the recent protests (when we first met, he got me started with his questions about Chavez, but when I was done talking, he at least knew better than to say “maybe Chavez is an ok guy” again).
        He was actually glad that the unrest was happening when he asked me about it. But after I told him about the accounts of students being tortured and of all our other problems, he actually told me to stop because he said:
        A) That’s all too horrible to process, and
        B) It’s making you visibly agitated and upset.

        • The Australian press overwhelmingly gave Chávez the thumbs up, back in the late 90s and up to the mid ’00s. Your friend was brainwashed, so I can understand how difficult a time he must have to “process” the information.

          • Australians are or where doing most of the work at Venezuelanalysis….three of them starting with a female who goes by the handle ‘red-bird.’. Wouldn’t concern myself with these PSFs.

  3. You did’nt get it at all, Nagel.

    Rather than being a branch, Caracas is a hub for heaven departures.

    But that will change, Ciudad CCS will change it all.


    They began to teach malandros how to whack people really hard, since..you know, concussions are way better than outright plomazos

    • Speaking of CCS, my mother was traveling last night and she said there seemed to be lots of people at the airport, something quite rare lately. She asked the national guardsman if there was something in particular. The GN answered, “it’s all the people leaving the country,” not going on vacation, but LEAVING THE COUNTR- “yéndose del país! “.

      • Non-Maduro voters have got the means to flee.
        Maduro voters don’t, and will have to stay and bear Maduro for ages.

        I don’t know about you, but this irony above is just beautiful for me. I see God writing straight on tortuous lines in moments like this.

        • “Non-Maduro voters have got the means to flee.”

          While generally, the chavista faithful have less means to flee, the opposite is not true. I know people who despise the regime but simply cannot leave, for various reasons. Whole thing is tragic.

      • I left two months ago. Rows to do legalization paperwork in downtown caracas surpass those for food by far, i’ve spent 6 straight weeks to do mine. Seeing someone with a cardboard diploma holder and some folders near any bureaucratic pilgrimage center has become a staple of this city.

        Venezuelan exodus is in full steam now, angrier and faster than ever. The country is bleeding talent to death, since these who left weren´t cualquier güevones.

        Each titulo in these endless rows implies forever wasted oportunity for this country to get better. Cuba just arrived.

    • “pic.twitter.com/eVJyAeUxLY”
      This might sound barbaric, rageful and vitriolic, but I really want to meet the person who wrote that some day in the future, and even being an atheist myself, I pray for I have a wrench in my power when I meet that person to give him a taste of his own advice.

  4. Juan – the data is for “Capital” cities over 500,000 population. Plot second-largest cities and I think Maracaibo still has a fighting chance to be in first place!

    I’m right now looking out over El Lago and your home town. I can’t help thinking, every time I look at El Lago WHY is there no international environmental consciousness of the disaster that is El Lago!

    Every environmentalist in the USA and Europe knows about the problem of the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest, and expresses concern over exploitation of the Ecuadorian rain forest for heavy oil production, but hardly anyone even knows about the environmental disaster in El Lago! This is absurd.

    The sheer scale of the loss of water and fish resources, of the pollution by oil and salt water infiltration, etc. of the largest body of (formerly) fresh water in the hemisphere south of Chicago is simply not known anywhere beyond Zulia!

    I taught a course in NYC that included research on El Lago, and the students were rather stunned to learn of this. The continued ruin of El Lago (since well before Mr. Chavez was born, and still after he is now gone) should be an international environmental issue.

    • I guess the Amazon affects us all, whereas El Lago doesn’t …? But you’re right, it’s an unbelievable disaster. And get this … it’s not even the worse we have. The situation in the Lago de Valencia is much, much more dire.

    • Hi again… My wife works for a major environmental organization that works around the globe. They are well aware of the mess… Thanks to Eva Goldinger’s legislation that she wrote with Chavez, no NGO is allowed to do any work in or about Venezuela. Meanwhile, if you are there, check out the lovely [sarcasm] “let’s save the planet by spending less energy” campaign the government deployed. A country that once boasted relatively clean electricity is now producing most of its electricity through fossil fuels because they f#*d up everything else they inherited, including the hydroelectric damns.

      • Marc, you are referring to Eva Goldigger I mean Gollinger? Why would anyone care about that lake? You cannot do nothing. Before you say yes you can, no you cant and I knew that 30 years ago. Venezuelans don’t give a shit about this stuff.

    • Tom, what else is new? They have been killing that lake and the gulf forever. They overfished the gulf decimating world-class shrimping grounds in the 60s (Beto Finol’s fishing fleet). I used to catch world record tarpon in the southern lake area back in the 80s. Tar and sludge always present.

  5. When I look back to my arrival to Venezuela in 1978 as a kid from Lima and a US citizen, I was also amazed with “El Avila” and the beauty of the valley and the weather. The ‘centro comerciales’ were incredibly albeit expensively stocked. It seemed that the standard auto was a “Caprice” or a “Ford LTD”. The restaurants in Altamira and Las Mercedes were world class, and yes, traffic was right out of hell.

    Many of my Venezuelan middle class friends had beach houses, and went often to “Mayami” to shop and alternatively to “Margarita”. You would never offend your guest by serving Johnny Walker Red Label. Venezuelans had this sophistication of “Paris – London – New York”.

    But I remember a phrase the nice ‘conserje gallega’ said as she shut her ‘reja’ to her apartment the first week I was here: “Aca los buenos nos encerramos detras de rejas, los ladrones andan por la calle” (good people are behind bars, robbers can roam the street).

    There was a sense of danger too. I was taught that there were clear no-go places in the city. Walking around in the evening was also verboten. And of course there was the last page of El Universal and the occasional middle class person shot en “el Este” that would make the headlines.

    Violence and corruption is not an invasive specie in Venezuela, but it is like a algae bloom that has overtaken a lake and everything dies under it.

    • I’ve heard of game theoretic models used to discuss how the majority makes moral choices (“to commit or not to commit a crime”) that result in “tipping point” behavior, a logistic inversion from “most people behave” to “not cheating is being a pendejo”. What you need is the right culture, but sometimes all you need is to start with proper law enforcement!!!!

      The day the Maduro cabinet and friends ( Luisa Ortega Díaz, Iris Valera!) or replacement gets this in their heads will be a good day …

  6. Three things to like about Ccs: the weather , the Avila and the easy going good humoured mood of many of its people. three bad things : the traffic, the omnipresent crime threat and the unpredictable availability of ordinary goods and services. Not included the infuriating depressing experience of living under an abusive and shameless bombastic and farcical regime .

    • I don’t thinks caraqueños are as easy going nor good humoured. Witty, mocking and poser-ish seems more fitting to them. I don´t remember when was the last time i’ve got proper customer service at ccs.

      In fact, the whole “venezuelans are warm, welcoming people” is often a load of BS. Deceit is our national currency.

        • True. In Miami today, it seems most Venezuelans know their place. Those that want to partake can go to the beach or any other area where being rich and snotty is normal. As I stated before, you would be hard pressed to find and hear Venezuelans talking aloud about home in public places. Nobody cares.

        • Of course saying ‘many’ doenst mean ‘everybody’ , there are a lots of surly and unfriendly caraquenos , which is not surprising if you think of the harsh business of daily living in Ccs .but if you have to go to public places all the time you get to meet a lot of friendly people in the customer side of the counters and even some in the other side if you try and somehow personalize the contact , not make it too dry and functional . Again and again I and my relatives get good treatment from people on the other side of the counter If you take care to recognize their humanity , even going out of their way to help you with some purchase or service which involves an special effort. In other places most people are civil or plastic friendly while at the same time avoiding personal or even eye contact with those about them . They walk in an impersonal cocoon of perfunctory courtesies but dont make human contact with anyone else . One of course must be careful not to generalize , people come in many different tempers and moods in any country , and Ccs is no exception .!!

      • Customer service in Venezuela has historically been pretty bad. When you are treated well, it’s pretty amazing. One of my relatives back there used to work in training people in the tourism industry. She suffered so much, she changed professions. People were resistant to the idea of working toward making other people feel good.

        • Honestly, the best service we get is typically from the expat European owners of the restaurants, posadas or service companies we deal with. Their employees are somewhat better, in general, than most “native” Venezuelan businesses.

  7. Caracas has a lot of great things going for it, and not just the climate and the setting, with some (formerly or potentially) great parks and public spaces, cultural centers, architecture, interesting areas, lots of young people. I could imagine this city being one of the great centers of the Americas, but it is a long way off. Right now it is evidence of that almost biblical folly that human beings exhibit at certain times in certain places of taking a magnificent opportunity and wasting it. Cities around the world have been rebuilt after being destroyed by war, natural disaster, or decades of corruption and neglect. There are good examples of this in Latin America. It is not unimaginable that this could happen in Caracas.

    • The problem of gaining some of the ‘could have been positions’ for Caracas is that you have well established incumbents.

      “Cabeza de continente” for trade is now firmly in Panama and the canal has made them a LONG running incumbent here. But it the 60s there was a chance for this.

      “Business and cultural epicenter for Latin America” goes to Miami. Again, some flirting here in the late 70s and 80s (remember P&G?).

      “International airline hub”, here there is a chance to recover, if you make jet fuel available at good prices and relax government regulation.

      “Gateway to the riches of Venezuela”, well… not much of that for the past few years, but unless Maracaibo can give it a run for its money :-), then this one is waiting for Caracas.

  8. Caracas 20-somethings and 30-somethings and other Venezuelans can join the start-up generations in other countries and develop start-ups and apps and digital products/services they can sell globally for USD and all other hard currencies. The Maduro government will not be able to stop that. There are no barriers in Venezuela stopping anyone doing that.

    • Off the top of my head: There’s the crappy internet speed, the inability to pay stuff like Amazon Web Services or other ISPs to host your service because of the currency exchange control, crime gets you killed, bringing those USD to pay your bills at a realistic exchange rate is illegal, you need a foreign based USD account to get the money/pay for stuff (although I’ll grant you Paypal is good enough in several cases). Some people do manage to succeed, but it’s a lot harder than it would be in, say, Panama, Uruguay, Colombia, Chile, etc.

      • Yes, I know it is a lot harder in Venezuela, but, that is what innovation, the internet, programming and disciplined, hard work is all about.

        Learning programming is completely free and made very user friendly on the internet today.

        See Codecadamy.com.

        No-one with an internet connection can say he or she is not on a par with start-up founders in the US – and everywhere else – with respect to coding. No country will ever have the monopoly on new ideas. That is impossible. See Estonia and Flappy Bird coming out of Vietnam.

        The point I am trying to make is that it is possible. As you stated: some people in Venezuela do manage to succeed against all odds.

        If you want to walk you have to get up and try: that is what we all knew instinctively as babies. It is still valid later in all walks of life.

        • I’m sorry, but I must disagree.

          An individual may succeed as the country fails. In the end, if you live in a disaster of a country, it doesn’t matter how talented you are as you will still go down with the ship. Its like being the best swimmer on the Titanic. This is the reason for the exodus.

          One of the more unfortunate aspects of life in Venezuela is that, outside of family (and not always outside of it, as the case may be), the more successful you are for honest endeavors, the more you tend to be punished by others in society. Its almost as if there’s a cultural aversion to celebrating being good at something. Add in the malandros that will target you and your family, the government “officials” that will conveniently show up to charge you for their non-existent services, licenses and other forms of rent, or any of the other myriad ways that people will try to impinge upon your success, and you have little to no chance of doing things the “right” way as it is done in 90% of the rest of the world. Its almost as if the old saw about misery loving company was writ large for an entire country.

          Technology is no salvation for Venezuela, or rather at least not at this point. Infrastructure is entirely lacking, regulation is ridiculous, financing is generally not available, the reinforcement of the network effect is basically non-existent, stability on a host of levels cannot be found and the whole business atmosphere is totally non-conducive to development. Besides, if you could code, go elsewhere and make money in a stable environment, why wouldn’t you? That’s why everyone with those skills is leaving.

          Venezuela is no Silicon Valley, Estonia, Israel, or even a Vietnam. It is the combination of the worst aspects of Zimbabwe, North Korea and Cuba with a touch of Nigeria thrown in.

  9. “Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of “The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die.” ”

    Hmmm, that makes him an expert on Venezuela all right!

  10. Back in the 1970s, people used to refer to Caracas as “a branch of heaven” (“la sucursal del cielo“).

    People in Cali made the same reference to their city.

  11. I had a nightmare yesterday. It was one more of a series of recurrent nightmares distinguished by a constant, general theme with minor variations each time. I dreamed I was back in Caracas. As usual, the dream began with me being forced to ride a bus (sometimes it is a small, privately-owned bus, this time it was a big bus from the 70s, like the ones that the ran the route “San José-Cementerio”). I am wearing my usual clothing, as if I was here. Crucially, I have my rucksack with computer, keys, wallet and phone inside. These objects fill me with dread: having them could provoke a potential thief into shooting me. Why do I have these things, when I am not here at home? this question anguishes me. Steadily the bus goes up a slum in a mountain, the houses become shacks, the people grow poorer, they look at me knowing (I know they know) I don’t live there, a foreigner in my own country. The bus is made of rusting metal with a peeling layer of green painting that (I somehow know) was laid decades ago. The slum smells, residual water streams from every corner, leaving pools of mud, people walk around them slowly. Electricity lines cut black against a blue, but dead, sky, old clothing hanging from them, as if nothing could be free of rubbish. At some point I try to pay for my ride, the driver smiles at me sardonically: my notes are old, I am giving him too much money. Sitting in the bus I fear the arrival of thieves but they fail to appear. The bus just goes on, the menace of violence seems present at every moment, since the other passengers know (I know they know, and they know I know) I don’t belong there with them. I realise the bus is not actually taking me to my destination, but further away into more slums. Then I wake up.

    I have read Arturo Uslar Pietri, while living in Paris, also had nightmares of him having to return to Caracas.

    Other people have told me of similar nightmares.

    • My wife, who like many Venezuelans was a victim of armed robbery and other crimes, has similar nightmares on a fairly regular basis. When shes go back to visit (I no longer go with her), she says she can never relax in Caracas. Just nervous and uneasy the whole time, and that is where she grew up! Consequently, she spends almost all her visiting time in Tachira or elsewhere were we have family.

      • I don’t want to alarm anyone, but both “I” and Rory seem to be describing classical PTSD symptoms, Recurrent nightmares of a traumatic past event, and not being able to stop intrusive thoughts even when in calm and peaceful environments is what many American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan endure.

        You two might want to take a peek at the PTSD wiki article : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_stress_disorder

  12. La sucursal del cielo.
    Los mas felices del mundo.
    El pais mas bello del mundo.

    Hyperbole born out of sheer ignorance. Even at our best moment, just a few visits out of Venezuela would show even the most obtuse observer that we Venezuelans are simply delusional, and more Argentinian than the Argentines when ti comes to self-praise.
    As a crazy man in Caracas used to say as he walked the streets, “echenme agua, carajo.”

    • jajaja.
      More than sheer ignorance, there’s also, group think borne out of insecurity or limited skills in critical thinking, even among those you wouldn’t expect to be affected,
      I remember a cousin, partner in his bufete of widespread international reputation, throwing that out at me, in the 1980s: Verdad que Caracas es la sucursal del cielo?
      I wondered if he needed affirmation. Since it was a social event, I said nothing more than: Si, vale, como no.

  13. Holy crap, Caraqueños are six more times more likely to die of a violent death than Bogotanos. And Colombia is going through a goddamn civil war!

    Yo Hollywood! Take note! Your third world cesspool Latin American banana republic is right here!


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