Ahmed’s clothing store on Lecuna Avenue, Caracas, is doing good business. “People in Venezuela always want something new,” he tells me, “seven t-shirts, minimum, seven pairs of trousers, minimum…” he laughs at the thought. Ahmed moved to Venezuela from Lebanon when he was just two years old, although his parents and three sisters have since returned to the Bekaa Valley. His cousin, Mohammed, who is aged 17, was born here. The Lebanese community in Venezuela stretches back for many decades. Under the government of Hugo Chavez, however, a particular contradiction was faced. Here was a government who openly spoke out against the Israeli government, unlike many Arab leaders, and who regularly criticised the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but whose economic policies did not always benefit Lebanese people doing business on the country.
When I meet up with Ahmed on the day after recent Presidential elections, in which Chavez’ successor Nicolas Maduro won by a hairline majority of just under 2%, with the opposition immediately refusing to recognise their defeat, Ahmed’s little finger is stained with purple ink, one of the measures taken by the National Electoral Council to ensure the security of the vote. He tells me that it was made easier for foreigners to take up residency in Venezuela during the Chavez government, and since successfully applying for citizenship four years ago, he is now able to vote.
“Yes, in the end I voted for Maduro,” Ahmed says, “because I look at [Henrique] Capriles, the opposition candidate, and I know that he supports Israel… he does not have our interests at heart.”
It is clear that the government remain popular with the poor majority in Venezuela, not least due to their social policies of building new apartments and homes for struggling families, selling food at cut prices in government-subsidised supermarkets, and sending doctors to provide free healthcare in the most deprived areas of the country. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Maduro’s vote was down by almost half a million from what Chavez received in his last electoral victory, just five months before his passing away in March. The trauma of three full election campaigns in seven months as well as the death of Chavez has left financial speculation dramatically increasing. For Ahmed, the issue has a personal effect.
“I have to send money to my sister in Lebanon so that she can study. It used to cost around ten or twelve bolivars to buy a US dollar, but suddenly, it is at least double that! I’m tired of working and working and then finding I have no money at the end. We are earning in bolivars, but it’s hardly worth anything when I want to send it home.”
During Chavez’ time in power, the Venezuelan government imposed restrictions on the amount of foreign money a person can buy, in order to strengthen the Venezuelan currency and in an attempt to prevent wealthy Venezuelans trying to damage the economy by instigating mass flights of capital. However, the downside of the measure has been the profilgation of a black market, on which foreign currency is available for purchase at far above the official rate of exchange. It’s good news for tourists arriving in the country, but a nightmare for Ahmed.
“You are lucky, man,” he tells me, “you could go back to London and visit your family right now. For me, it’s a big problem. You can change $3,000 dollars with the government, once per year, and nothing more. If they got rid of the currency controls the black market would disappear!”
In the Paraiso district of Caracas, shawarma restaurants and Arabic spoken in the streets are a mark of a strong Lebanese presence. Samer, who lives in the area, says that the government has benefited poor people, but that corruption remains prevalent.
“I know Lebanese people who came here years ago with no more than a hundred dollars in their pocket, and they have made millions,” Samer tells me. “The system is wide open to corrupt practices. You can import whatever you like; it can be clothes or just piles of garbage… the point is that you make the profits in exchanging the currency. Under the system that Chavez’ government introduced, you just sign a piece of paper saying you want to import a certain amount of goods, but people deliberately over-estimate the value. Once the governments have also signed the agreement, it’s like having a blank cheque for making money. Did the government introduce this system to help poor people? No, but it is helping people get rich.”
Issa, who also lives in Paraiso, says that despite their problems, he will continue to support the government in power. “There is no other option,” he asserts, “Capriles is a gangster… he is supported by the US government, and his followers send money to support Israel. There are many problems here; there are people being attacked in the streets by criminals, the cost of living is high, but Capriles is not the solution. The Venezuelan government are always speaking for the rights of our Palestinian brothers. What other government in the world do you see doing that?”
Following his refusal to accept the results of the Presidential elections on April 14th, Capriles’ call for his voters to take to the streets resulted in violent actions across the country. As well as the killings of nine government supporters, the protests included arson attacks on government initiatives such as hospitals and cheap food markets, as well as the surrounding of the home of Tibisay Lucena, President of the National Electoral Council, an independent body responsible for the running of the elections. However, Capriles laid blame for the deaths on the government, and amongst critics of the Bolivarian process, crime is always a major talking point.
There is more to the issue than is often presented, with Venezuelans pointing towards attempts by successive right-wing Colombian governments to destabilise the country by sending in armed mercenaries. During his electoral campaign, Nicolas Maduro accused US officials Roger Noriega and Otto Reich of being behind a plot to assassinate Capriles in order to justify foreign intervention in Venezuela. “They want to do the same here as they have in Libya and Syria,” Maduro announced on more than one occasion.
Nevertheless, not all violence in the Venezuelan capital can be blamed on foreign plots. To Ahmed, the rising murder rate in Caracas is more than a number. In early March, his uncle was stabbed to death on the doorstep of his home by a man demanding money that he didn’t have. It was just a day after Chavez’ passing had been announced.
“Of course we were sad,” Ahmed says, “above all, because there was no reason for it to happen.”
The problems faced by the Lebanese community in Venezuela can be seen as a microcosm for those the wider society is now coming up against. Nicolas Maduro is the first post-Chavez President to be elected since his Bolivarian revolution began, and he is living in the shadow of the former leader, still referred to by many as “our Commandante”. According to Ahmed, activists within Maduro’s own party, the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela], have unofficially given him until December this year as a trial period.
“We hope things will get better”, Ahmed concludes. “Personally as well, I hope that the currency gets strong, that I will be able to go and visit my family in Lebanon. If Maduro manages to calm the situation, and to improve the economy, then we can go from there. If not? Yes, he might have problems on his hands.”