In Caracas, criminals come up to your car with a gun and demand you hand over your wallet ’ or else you get a bullet.
I’ve just come back from Caracas where the all-important Venezuelan elections are being held tomorrow that could see the writing on the wall – finally – for the socialist regime of Hugo Chavez, one of the world’s most invidious, dangerous, misunderstood, corrupt and pathologically crazy leaders.
Not that you would know about the elections from the British press. As one foreign editor of a top national newspaper confessed to me last week, commissioning any stories on South America is always a fraught business as they are the first to be ‘dumped’ when anything other vaguely interesting international story comes up.
The real problem with Caracas is crime. It is one of the most dangerous cities on the planet – during a rain storm the day before the elections, which brought the city to a standstill, there were something like 237 violent crimes committed as the traffic was grid-locked. In London, if you find yourself stuck at a busy intersection in the rush hour you might find yourself handing over £1 or 50p to some skinny teenager armed with a dishwashing cloth and a sponge.
But in Caracas, criminals just come up to your car with a gun, smash your window and demand you hand over your watch and wallet – or else you get a bullet in the head. When I was having lunch one day last week with my brother-in-law and my wife, Vanessa, who was born and brought up in Caracas, I was told: ‘For God’s sake take off your watch. If anybody sees it they will just point a gun at your head and if you don’t understand Spanish they will shoot you anyway.’
We were there for a society wedding of an old friend of my wife’s. The wedding was something out of a Graham Greene novel – Our Man in Havana comes to mind – with the wedding itself taking place at 8.30pm at a convent near the posh Country Club area. Venezuelans don’t tend to like long wedding services so the church was not nearly as well attended as the party at the Country Club – which didn’t even get started until about midnight.
As people started to leave around 2am, I stood waiting for our car on the steps of the club as the valet parking team drove around all the guests cars from the car-park (conveniently there is a bank and cash-point machine inside the gates of the country club, next to the club car-park, so that members can take out cash without being mugged).
What I thought was off was that although the guests included many of the wealthiest families in Caracas, all the cars that pulled up to the club door were the sort of cars that you might expect a nanny or maid to drive: beaten up old Datsuns and Hondas, the odd Ford Chevy. As we boarded my brother-in-laws old SUV, he said, ‘Oh, nobody takes out their real cars at night here – they keep the BMWs and the Ferraris in the garage for use only in daylight. It’s just too dangerous.’
This reminded me of the scene in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities where, Kramer, the District Attorney who is about to bring down Master of the Universe Sherman McCoy travels to the Bronx every day with his brown leather dress shoes inside a plastic supermarket bag whilst he wears Nike running shoes on the actual subway, for fear of being targeted by a gang of muggers on the tube.