For the world's risk-taking travelers, those who go to places from which there may be no return, Venezuela is rapidly becoming a major attraction.
If you like finding yourself amid violent demonstrations, if you seek the thrill of being accused of working for the CIA, if you like getting mugged by street thugs, or if you are just a traveling masochist, try Caracas!
In Venezuela, all your nightmares can come true! If the thugs don't mug you, the cops will probably arrest you.
The socialist government of questionably elected President Nicolas Maduro acknowledged Friday that 58 foreigners, including an American, have been arrested on suspicion of inciting the violent anti-government protests that have rocked Venezuela for three months.
While trying to suppress a "Venezuelan Spring," the Maduro government tries to blame foreigners for the discontent of its people — as if the world could not see they are fed up with totalitarian measures, food scarcity, economic chaos, scary crime rates and the highest inflation in the Americas. As if the Venezuelan people could not cry out for change by themselves without foreigners to incite them!
Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres told a news conference that there are numerous nationalities among the foreign "mercenaries" rounded up before and during the anti-government demonstrations, including Colombians, a Spaniard, an Arab and a 32-year-old American identified as Todd Michael Leininger. He said, "almost all (are) implicated in the use of arms."
Without producing a thread of evidence that the 58 foreigners were tied to each other, Rodriguez insinuated that they are part of a U.S.-orchestrated plot to topple the Maduro government.
"The protests were not spontaneous," Rodriguez said, showing little respect for the frustrations expressed by the Venezuelan people. "Venezuela is, without doubt, living through a plan of insurrectional conspiracy with clear aims of toppling the legitimately established government, and that plan is part of a permanent strategic objective of the U.S. State Department."
This smoke screen created by the Maduro government — to divert attention from its own incompetence and failed ideology — is nothing new. Just like Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez — and just like their mentors Fidel and Raul Castro in Havana — the new Venezuelan oligarchy always blames the Yankee boogieman for everything.
Even former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was implicated by Rodriguez in an alleged U.S.-Colombian plot to incite unrest in Venezuela and bring down Maduro. Uribe, the State Department and young opposition protesters — who are the real force of change in Venezuela — denied the accusations.
Of course, most Americans don't know about any of this because the U.S. news media still has not noticed that one of our hemispheric neighbors is on the verge of a civil war. We prefer civil wars in other parts of the world. The farther they are, they better we cover them.
At least 41 people have died, close to 800 have been injured, and more than 2,200 have been arrested since the anti-government protests began in Venezuela in early February. But you hardly hear about them on our news networks.
Fortunately, without much help from our media, travelers see a 22 percent inflation rate and one of the top five murder rates in the world, so they know it's time to stay away from Venezuela. The Chavez/Maduro government policies have made Caracas not only one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but also one of the most expensive. It's ludicrous!
Ironically, Venezuela should be the perfect destination for a dream vacation. It has all the natural amenities of a tourist paradise: Snow-capped Andean mountains, Amazon rainforests, the world's tallest waterfall, bone-white beaches, the longest coastline in the Caribbean, and a capital city that was once a vibrant, must-see cultural center.
Yet, in spite of Venezuela's wealth of natural attractions, tourism plummeted during most of the 14 years Chavez was in power. His arrogance, his monetary policies and his neglect of rampant crime quickly turned one of Latin America's favorite tourist destinations into one of the least-visited countries in the Americas.
And it's not just tourists who are staying away from the regime inherited by Maduro after Chavez died of cancer last year: Business travelers have diminished, too. After all, in spite of its immense oil wealth, Venezuela has turned into a hostile environment for investment. The government's erratic policies, its seizing of corporate assets, its constant threats against the private sector, and its outrageous money exchange rates make Venezuela extremely risky and very expensive for both business travelers and tourists.
Until the government started arresting foreigners in the past three months, Venezuelan tourism had recovered slightly in recent years. But even neighboring Colombia — overcoming its drug trafficking and guerrilla warfare reputation — now receives almost four times as many visitors as Venezuela. While some 600,000 foreigners reportedly visit Venezuela every year, and only half of them are tourists, according to published reports, Colombia gets more than 2 million visitors.
And after the recent arrests of 58 foreigners, Venezuelan tourism is not likely to see a renaissance in the near future .
A recent State Department security message warned U.S. citizens of the "increased risks of travel to and within Venezuela due to the ongoing political unrest and increasingly violent clashes between Venezuelan security forces and protesters." It noted, "U.S. citizens are advised to avoid all protests, demonstrations, and large gatherings, and to remain inside in the evening."
Yet since the news events occurring there are not on our media radar nowadays, no one is telling us about State Department travel warnings. No one in the U.S. media is warning us that traveling to Venezuela can be hazardous to our health.
So let me be the first: Stay away!
I've always wanted to visit Venezuela. I know it's a beautiful country with a wealth of natural attractions and wonderful people. But for now, I think I'll wait. If I need a risk-taking attraction, I'll go to an amusement park. A gigantic rollercoaster is probably a lot safer.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.