January 26, 2007

Toward A Socialist Paradise: Venezuela Governor To Seize Airport

After eight years of Hugo Chávez, kidnappers and thieves prowl
Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar International Airport: I learned about that the hard way. Expect more of the same as the state expropriates a nearby privately owned airport (Photo: Simon Bolivar terminal)

See Thomas Lifson's comments on this article at The American Thinker.

By David Paulin

For years, airline passengers disembarking at Venezuela’s main airport faced an unsettling experience: Simon Bolivar International Airport is a model of inefficiency. It's what you could expect from most state-owned and Venezuelan managed enterprises. Passengers going to the taxi stand might get picked up by a pirate taxi – the driver having bribed or snuck his way past apathetic security personnel. Many travelers paid several times the going rate for the 30-minute trip to Caracas. Today, after eight years of Hugo Chávez’s “revolutionary” government, the airport is more disorganized than ever. And it’s dangerous. Four years ago, I found out just how dangerous.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s the latest news from Venezuela’s emerging socialist paradise: A state governor allied with President Chávez has ordered the expropriation of a private airport in Charallave on the outskirts of Caracas. The reason, according to Miranda Gov. Diosdado Cabello, is to “substantially improve the use of the airport” by siphoning off air traffic from Simon Bolivar airport in nearby Maiquetia.

Some 500 shareholders were surprised by the announcement, airport manager Henry Vazquez told the Associated Press. And no wonder: The airport already was controlled by government officials and soldiers. Obviously, there are really only two reasons for the take-over: Power and control. Socialism has nothing to do with it.

The move comes as Chávez has vowed to nationalize “strategic sectors” – including private firms in which U.S. companies have stakes in telecommunications, electricity, and the oil industry.

The take-over announcement comes days after a remarkable news conference in Caracas given by Luis Miquilena, 87, who guided Chávez to his first landslide election win. A long-time leftist, Miquilena left Chávez’s cabinet five years ago, and at the news conference he savaged El Presidente. Miquilena thus joined a long list of former Chávez allies who parted company with the autocratic populist after seeing what he was all about. A similar pattern occurred in Cuba as Chávez mentor Fidel Castro showed his true colors, following his democratic “revolution” some 50 years ago.

"This is a government with a hypocritical authoritarianism that tries to sell the world certain democratic appearances," Miquilena said at a daily newspaper, El Nacional, which has been critical of Chávez’s government. "The government is not abiding by any rule. It has all the characteristics of a dictatorial government."

As Miquilena nears the end of his life, it is ironic and sad that he must now bear witness to Venezuela’s slide into what has all the appearances of a dictatorship, albeit for its democratic trappings. He had held his tongue until now. As a young man, Miquilena saw Venezuela emerge from the dictatorship of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez into a democracy. By some accounts, he was tortured by that dictator’s secret police.

Miquilena’s comments came days before Chávez was expected to be ruling by “decree.” And once that happens, don’t expect the nation’s airports to hum with efficiency.


Four years ago, I learned just how bad things had gotten at Simon Bolivar International Airport when I disembarked from a KLM flight from Amsterdam. Having been through the airport many times before, when living in Venezuela, I figured I could differentiate between the good guys and bad guys.

I was wrong.

Getting into a taxi, my driver tossed my bag into the back seat, and I slide in right next to it. Suddenly, two other guys opened the doors on either side and got in. I heard the snap of automatic door locks.

Immediately, I knew what was happening. Frantically, I pulled at the door knobs.

“Calm down, calm down,” said the small wiry man who had pretended to be a taxi driver – right down to the official badge.

Helplessly, I looked out the window as we slowly drove off: The gringo traveler and his three Venezuelan companions in a taxi. Thirty feet away, two apathetic National Guardsmen were engaged in small talk.

The guy in the right-font seat opened the glove compartment. I heard the sickening sound of a semi-automatic being cocked. I knew enough about this sort of thing to know that your chances of survival go down significantly once you’re kidnapped.

I was calm, yet seized with dread. I wondered if the last thing I’d ever see was the guy in the right-front seat turning around and firing a bullet into my chest. The three of them were in their 40s and 50s and looked quite ordinary.

One flipped through my U.S. passport and, seeing a residency stamp for Jamaica, somehow confused me for a Canadian. Maybe it was my lucky day.

Jamaica is a sovereign country, right?” one said.

“Yes, I have a wife and two kids there,” I replied. It was a lie, calculated to make me seem more human to them. They looked like family men.

They were disappointed I didn’t have more cash – so I overstated the value of the Jamaican dollars I was carrying. That made them happy.

“We’re poor. That’s why we’re doing this,” one of them said. He professed solidarity with Hugo Chávez.

Thirty minutes later, they let me out in a working-class section of Caracas. They'd picked me clean, taking a few hundred dollars, a camera, and a cell phone. They gave me cab fare to get to my destination.

Later, I spoke over the phone with a security officer at the U.S. Embassy.

“I used to live here," I said. "So can I assume it's like it was a few years ago; that it would be a waste of time to report this to the police?”

“Yes, you can assume that.”

He added, “This has been happening a lot. I shouldn’t say this, but a few days ago I got an irate call from the head of security for one of the U.S. airlines flying here.

“One of their captains was kidnapped. It happened exactly like you described.”

KLM, for its part, was wise to this. My flight’s steward told me that KLM no longer let its crews stay overnight in Venezuela: too dangerous. They flew the plane to Curacao and then returned the next day for passengers.

Violent crime has soared in Venezuela after eight years of Chávez. Typically, the sorts of folks who cheer on Chávez are the types who claim that poverty and crime are related. In other words, when poverty goes down, so does crime.

Yet Chávez claims to have reduced poverty – and still crime is soaring. The more likely factors that explain the crime explosion are the same ones found at the international airport – epic levels of inefficiency, corruption, and mismanagement. Travelers heading to Venezuela would be well-advised to look at the State Department's hair-raising report on security there.

Regarding the main airport, here’s an excerpt:

Maiquetia Airport, the international airport serving Caracas, is dangerous and corruption is rampant. Concerns include personal property theft, muggings, and “express kidnappings” in which individuals are taken to make purchases or to withdraw as much money as possible from ATMs, often at gunpoint. The Embassy has received multiple, credible reports that individuals with what appear to be official uniforms or other credentials are involved in facilitating or perpetrating these crimes.”

Once Chávez’s goons get their hands on the Charallave airport, you can expect more of the same: That’s how authoritarian socialism works.

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