Venezuela

Once an institution, Venezuela bilingual publication succumbs to economic crisis

BY JIM WYSS

jwyss@miamiherald.com

VenEconomía Editor and Publisher Robert “Toby” Bottome
VenEconomía Editor and Publisher Robert “Toby” Bottome

For more than three decades, VenEconomía kept readers abreast of Venezuela’s tumultuous financial, political and business world. Published in English and Spanish, it was a go-to resource for multinationals and the diplomatic community trying to make sense of the country.

Last week, the publication became the latest victim of the sector it covered. It printed its last edition and is closing its doors.

VenEconomía Editor and Publisher Robert “Toby” Bottome, 81, said the decision had been purely financial.

“We are talking about inflation of 600, 700, 800 percent, the costs are going through the roof and we just weren’t seeing the subscriptions,” he said. “I would rather close it today while we can still pay severance to our staff rather than wait.”

Started 34 years ago, the publication often took critical and contrarian views — trying to explain to readers the advantages of unpopular economic policies adopted by the late Carlos Andrés Pérez, and warning about the pitfalls of the 21st Century Socialism pursued by Hugo Chávez.

In a country where media outlets have been hounded out of business for their editorial line, Bottome said VenEconomía flew under the radar. For starters, it was subscription only and, while it was a bilingual publication, it was more known for its English-language version.

“Part of it was not adding adjectives, like saying ‘this stupid president’ or whatever; that helped,” Bottome said. “It kept us a little bit out of the eye of the scandal.”

Joseph Mann, who founded VenEconony with fellow journalist John Sweeney and is a regular contributor to the Miami Herald, says Bottome is too modest — that the magazine often swayed the financial markets and irked those in power.

“I always asked him ‘Why haven’t they put you in jail?’” said Mann, who left the publication in 1995. “And he would always tell me that he wasn’t important enough, which wasn’t true… He was very brave to continue for so long.”

We thought the world was going to come to an end about eight years ago, and now it’s only coming to an end now.

Robert Bottome, VenEconomía

In many ways, the magazine is needed more than ever. As the country’s economy continues to collapse — wracked by triple-digit inflation and food shortages — the battlefield needs all the dispassionate analysis available.

Bottome said VenEconomía had been predicting the current malaise for years.

“When Chávez came to power, we started warning about all the disasters that were in the making, but we were a little bit ahead of the game,” he said. “We thought the world was going to come to an end about eight years ago, and now it’s only coming to an end now.”

Bottome arrived in Venezuela in 1940 as a child, accompanying his father who had come to the country to manage investments for Nelson Rockefeller. After going to high school and university in the United States, he returned to work as a stockbroker, opening the Caracas’ office for Merrill Lynch.

“Beginning in 1976, I started writing for a living — maybe ‘living’ is the wrong word —but I have been writing ever since, and it has been fun,” he said.

During the magazine’s heyday, it had more than 3,000 weekly subscribers and was sold throughout Venezuela and internationally. It was also a magnet for young writers getting their start in the region.

Francisco Toro, the executive editor of the popular blog Caracas Chronicles, was a writer and editor at the publication from 1999-2003 — covering the rise of Chávez and his brief ouster during a 2002 coup.

“It was a very intense time and [Bottome] guided us through it all,” he said. “I learned so much from the guy — he mentored me; I had never worked at a publication before that.”

Andrew Rosati, now a Venezuela correspondent for Bloomberg, said Bottome took a chance by giving him his first journalism job and that he didn’t pull punches.

After handing in his first story, back in 2012, Rosati recalls Bottome leaning over his shoulder and saying: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but when you get back to the United States you should take some writing lessons.”

Parting Predictions

Even as he gets out of the analysis business, Bottome can’t resist offering a few more predictions about the country’s future.

He says the opposition’s attempts to force President Nicolás Maduro out of power will fail because the administration has the judicial branch on its side. That means that the only solution is for Maduro to be forced out by his own party — an outcome Bottome says might “even be worse” than the status quo.

“Or it could be that the good parts of the government talk to the good parts of the opposition and say ‘let’s work on this together,’” he speculated. “We don’t know if this is going to happen but that would be the best result.”

As for his own future, it’s also a little cloudy.

“I haven’t quite figured it out yet,” he said. “But I will certainly not retire and grow roses in the back garden.”

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