British photojournalist Alan Gignoux and Venezuelan journalist-filmmaker Carolina Graterol, both based in London, went to Venezuela for a month to shoot a documentary for a major global TV channel. They talked with journalist Paul Cochrane about the mainstream media’s portrayal of Venezuela compared to their experiences on the ground.
Paul Cochrane: What were you doing in Venezuela, how long were you there and where did you go?
Alan Gignoux: We went in August 2018 for a month to shoot a documentary; I can’t disclose what channels it will be on right now, but it should be on air soon. We visited the capital Caracas, Mérida (in the Andes), Cumaná (on the coast), and Ciudad Guayana (near the mouth of the Orinoco river).
PC: How did being in Venezuela compare to what you were seeing in Western media?
Carolina Graterol: I am a journalist, I have family in Venezuela, and I knew the reality was very different from what the media is portraying, but still I was surprised. The first thing we noticed was the lack of poverty. Alan wanted to film homeless and poor people on the streets. I saw three people sleeping rough just this morning in London, but in Venezuela, we couldn’t find any, in big cities or towns. We wanted to interview them, but we couldn’t find them. It is because of multi disciplinary programmes run by the government, with social services working to get children off the streets, or returned to their families. The programme has been going on for a long time but I hadn’t realized how effective it was.
PC: Alan, what surprised you?
AG: We have to be realistic. Things look worn down and tired. There is food, there are private restaurants and cafes open, and you could feel the economic crisis kicking in but poverty is not as bad as what I’ve seen in Brazil or Colombia, where there are lots of street children. Venezuela doesn’t seem to have a homeless problem, and the favelas have running water and electricity. The extreme poverty didn’t seem as bad as in other South American countries. People told me before going I should be worried about crime, but we worked with a lady from El Salvador, and she said Venezuela was easy compared to her country, where there are security guards with machine guns outside coffee shops. They also say a lot of Venezuelan criminals left as there’s not that much to rob, with better pickings in Argentina, Chile or wherever.
PC: How have the US sanctions impacted Venezuelans?
CG: Food is expensive, but people are buying things, even at ten times their salary. Due to inflation, you have to make multiple card payments as the machine wouldn’t take such a high transaction all at once. The government has created a system, Local Committees for Production and Supply (known by its Spanish acronym CLAP) that feeds people, 6 million families, every month via a box of food. The idea of the government was to bypass private distribution networks, hoarding and scarcity. Our assistant was from a middle class area in Caracas, and she was the only Chavista there, but people got together and created a CLAP system, with the box containing 19 products. Unless you have a huge salary, or money from outside, you have to use other ways to feed yourself. People’s larders were full, as they started building up supplies for emergencies. People have lost weight, I reckon many adults 10 to 15 kilos. Last time I was in Venezuela three years ago, I found a lot of obese people, like in the US, due to excessive eating, but this time people were a good size, and nobody is dying from hunger or malnutrition.
PC: So what are Venezuelans eating?
CG: A vegetarian diet. People apologized as they couldn’t offer us meat, instead vegetables, lentils, and black beans. So everyone has been forced to have a vegetarian diet, and maybe the main complaint was that people couldn’t eat meat like they used to do. The situation is not that serious. Before Hugo Chavez came to power, Venezuela had 40% critical poverty out of 80% poverty, but that rate went down to 27%, and before the crisis was just 6 or 7% critical poverty. Everyone is receiving help from the government.
PC: So food is the main concern?
CG: The real attack on the economy is on food. When you have hyperinflation everything goes up in price, but food has become the main source of spending because this is the variable going up in price at exorbitant levels. Bills like water, electricity, public transport haven’t gone up that much and represent a small percentage of any family spending. This is why the distortions in the economy are not intrinsic, but caused by external factors, otherwise everything should have gone up, no matter what it is.
PC: Alan, did you lose weight in Venezuela?
AG: No! What surprised me was how many people are growing their own vegetables. It is a bit like in Russia, where everyone has a dacha. Venezuela is tropical, so it is easy to grow produce. Mango trees are everywhere, so you can pick a mango whenever you want.
PC: So the crisis we read about everyday is primarily due to the US sanctions?
CG: The sanctions have affected the country. I want to be fair. I think the government was slow to act on the direction the country was being pushed. It was probably not a good idea to pay off $70 billion in external debt over the past five years. In my opinion, (President Nicolas) Maduro decided to honor the external debt, thinking this was the right way to pay our commitments, but at the same time, this economic war started waging internally, and also externally, blocking international loans.
The government should also have taken action against Colombia for allowing over one hundred exchange houses to be set up on the border with Venezuela. These exchange houses eroded the currency as they were using different exchange rates, and that contributed to the Bolivar’s devaluation. I think they should have denounced the (Juan Manuel) Santos government. If Colombia says that Venezuelan oil that crosses its border is contraband, why not currency? Remember, the biggest industry in Colombia is cocaine – narcotics trafficking – and it has grown exponentially, so they’ve an excessive amount of US dollars and need to launder them, which drained the Venezuelan currency. It is induced hyperinflation. Also, in Miami, the Venezuelan oligarchy created a website called DolarToday about 12 years ago to destroy the Venezuelan economy.
PC: What else struck you?
CG: People are still smiling and making jokes about the situation, which I find incredible. People are willing to share, and we were in some tricky situations, like when our car broke down at night.
AG: Everyone says don’t drive at night in Venezuela. We were on the road, and figured we’d only half hour to go, what could go wrong? Then a transformer burned out. I thought I was about to have my Venezuelan nightmare, stuck in the middle of nowhere on a dark road at night. Who would ever find you?
CG: As there were no lights we had to use our phones to let big trucks know we were on the road.
AG: We pretended I was deaf as I couldn’t pass for Venezuelan with my Spanish accent. So, a really old old pick-up truck pulls up, and the occupants looked rather salty, but they were very nice and took us to a petrol station.
CG: I told you Alan, you are not in the US, you are not going to be shot!
AG: I was with three women with money, I thought OK I will be shot, but it all turned out fine, and they thought I was deaf.
CG: We were told we could sleep in a shop but we slept in the car instead, and it was fine.
PC: What about the power cuts that have plagued the country?
CG: During blackouts, people told stories, played music, or went out and talked on the streets. It was a paradise, no TVs, smartphones, but real human contact. People cook together. During the day they’re playing board games, dominoes, and kids are having fun. People with kids are possibly more stressed, especially if you live in a tower block, as if you’ve no electricity, you’ve no water. That is why the US hit the electricity grid as it means no water in Caracas – a city of 10 million people. Luckily there are wells with clean water around the city, so people queue up to get it.
PC: So there was a real discrepancy between the image you were given of Venezuela and the reality?
AG: Sure, there are queues for oil, but people are not dying of starvation and, as I said, poverty is nowhere near what it is like in Brazil. I wouldn’t say a harsh dictatorship, people were open, and criticized the government, and the US, but also Chavez and Maduro. The Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) have admitted they had made bad economic decisions. I thought it would be more repressive, and it wasn’t. People were not fearful about speaking out. I think Venezuelans blame the Americans for the situation more than Maduro.
PC: What do you make of the hullabaloo in February about US and Canadian aid being blocked by Venezuela?
AG: It is a Trojan horse, a good way to get the US in, and why international agencies were not willing to take part in the plan. Instead there has been Chinese and Russian aid.
CG: There’s not the chaos US and Trump were expecting. (Opposition leader and self-proclaimed president Juan) Guaidó is the most hated guy in Venezuela. He has to stay in luxury hotel in La Mercedes, an expensive neighbourhood of Caracas. They have electricity there, as they were prepared, so bought generators. That is why Guaidó went there, and has a whole floor of a luxury hotel for him and his family. While people are suffering Guaidó is trying on suits for his upcoming trip to Europe. It is a parallel world.
AG: You think Guaidó will fail?
CG: Venezuelans are making so many jokes with his name, as there’s a word similar to stupid in Spanish – guevon. And look at the demonstration in La Mercedes the other day (12 March), the crowds didn’t manifest. It is becoming a joke in the country. The more the Europeans and the US make him a president, the more bizarre the situation becomes, as Guaidó is not president of Venezuela! Interestingly, Chavez predicted what is happening today, he wrote about it, so people are going back to his works and reading him again.
PC: There’s plenty of material on the history of American imperialism in South America to make such predictions, also, more recently, the Canadians and their mining companies, in Paraguay, Honduras, and now backing Guaidó.
CG: Exactly. Look at Chile in 1973, what happened to the Sandinistas in El Salvador, in Guatemala.
It is a well rehearsed strategy to destroy an economy using external forces to drive up prices of supplies and products. When you have such a cycle, it explodes.
• Alan Gignoux is a photojournalist, with a particular focus on socio-political and environmental issues. Alan’s work has been published in The New York Times, CNN Traveller, The Independent, Reuters and World Photography News, among others.
• Carolina Graterol is a Venezuelan journalist, filmmaker and artist. She has worked for the BBC World Service (Spanish) and Telesur. She is the director of “A Letter from Venezuela” (2019).