Buy a health insurance policy. Although the government and Sean Penn like to claim that all Venezuelans have free access to health care, that’s a farce. At the health center in my little village outside Caracas, the sick are advised to bring their own thermometers. The clinic doesn’t have any. Medications? Forget it – they have none. Patients are sent to nearby private pharmacies for even minor medications. And the hospitals are even worse. One of my friends broke his leg in two places, and I took him to the state hospital here. The doctor told us that his leg would have to be reset with pins. My neighbor said, “Do it.” The doctor laughed and told us we had misunderstood. The hospital had no pins; we would have to buy them at a hefty sum in Caracas.
You’ll want to be extra-careful when the lights go out. Although Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, power outages are constant as the electricity grid slowly falls apart. So bring an extra suitcase of batteries and candles from Moscow.
It’s true that many Venezuelans here admire you for blowing the whistle on clandestine U.S. espionage programs. But think twice before pulling a stunt like that here. We have our own version of the surveillance state, but the government’s opponents say that it’s more typically Cuban “advisers” who are listening in on calls through the state telephone company and the armed forces.
Speaking of which, you’ll want to get acquainted with your new best friend: President Nicolás Maduro, who styles himself as a “son” of Chávez and once claimed that his predecessor appeared to him in the form of a bird. A former bus driver, Maduro has made a mission of befriending countries with spotty records on human rights, from Iran to Syria, Cuba to Belarus. His supporters like to claim that Venezuela’s democracy is the best in South America, but that’s clearly a sham. The country’s political institutions, including the Supreme Tribunal of Justice and the National Electoral Council, have lost their autonomy entirely. Under Chvez, they simply became extensions of the supreme power of the president and his minions.
Meanwhile, the president’s election victory this April has yet to be recognized by the country’s opposition, which claims he wouldn’t have won save for massive vote fraud. Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice and the National Electoral Council have dragged their feet in reviewing the results.
I’m not sure how your Spanish is, Señor Snowden, but here’s a quick first lesson. Despite your campaign of conscience against the United States, a few people might still call you Yanqui or gringo, at first. But when they start railing against your homeland, you’ll hear imperialista and capitalista. And get ready to hear the words fascista (“fascist”), contrarrevolucionario (“counterrevolutionary”), and burgués (“bourgeois”) a lot. They’re used to describe anyone who opposes the government.
Don’t worry; you’ll be able to find a copy of the Guardian in Caracas. And yes, we still have a free press, even though the government has a habit of shutting down television and radio stations when they get too critical. Open dissent has its dangers. Just ask the 2.4 million Venezuelans who signed a recall petition against Chávez in 2004. Thousands lost their government jobs and are still barred — nine years later — from reapplying for state work. That’s what you get for just speaking out against the government here . . .
You’ll do fine down here, Señor Snowden, and hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans support you and your crusade. But many more down here wonder why you would ever want to come to a country that constantly violates the very principles you’re fighting for.
Peter Wilson is a journalist who has lived in Venezuela since 1992. The Caracas bureau chief for Bloomberg News for nearly 11 years, Wilson is writing a book on Hugo Chvez and his revolution.