What They Aren’t Seeing in Venezuela

On August 13th 2010, El Nacional newspaper in Venezuela published a photograph of piled corpses at a morgue in Caracas on its frontpage. The New York Times called the photo, “unquestionably gory and unusually anarchic”. Three days later the photo was reprinted by another newspaper, Tal Cual. The Venezuela government denounced the publication as part of campaign against President Hugo Chavez’s Socialist Party ahead of September 26 legislative elections, and the courts ordered all newspapers not to print violent images ‘to protect children’. On August 18th, El Nacional responded by issuing a front page without photos, but with the word “Censored.”

No matter how harsh the censorship is, it is still undeniable that Caracas remains one of the most violent cities in the world. There,  two people are murdered every hour — a homicide rate that has tripled since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998 — and 90 percent of them go unsolved by a system that always manages to find time for cases against Hugo Chavez’s critics. Venezuela as a country does not fare better: if you were a civilian living in Venezuela in 2009, you are nearly four times more likely to get murdered than if you are a civilian living in Iraq! There are 15 civilian deaths  in Iraq and 57 in Venezuela per 100,000 residents. (This data is of course a rough estimate; Chavez government stopped publishing murder stats in 2003.) Although Ciudad Juárez, the center of Mexico’s drug wars, has higher murder rates than Caracas, drug wars have claimed fewer lives in 2009. There was 12 homicides per 100,000 people in Mexico, and 35  homicides per 100,000 people in Colombia.

The government has maintained that high poverty rates in the 1980s and 90s are to blame for today’s criminals, who were street children back them. Freakconomics guys will probably support this hypothesis, but the legacy of Chavez’s Venezuela, with its intense censorship and nationalizations, its ban on investments abroad, its failure to close the wealth gap, its recession-racked and shrinking economy, weak currency, devaluation and an inflation rate that is among the highest in the world will not probably be any better.

Aid from a Padre

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4 June 1962. Navy chaplain Luis Padillo was walking around giving last rites to dying soldiers as sniper fire surrounded him. A wounded soldier pulled himself up by linging to the priest’s cassock, as bullets chewed up the concrete around them. Hector Rondón Lovera, who had to lie flat to avoid getting shot, later said that he was unsure how he managed to take this picture. [See all pictures he took that day]. Norman Rockwell eeriely used this photograph as a template for his Southern Justice painting, “Murder in Mississippi“.

It was taken in Puerto Cabello Naval Base, Venezuela, the city of 80,000 beside the nation’s largest naval base 75 miles west of the capital Caracas . Venezuela’s constitution was only a year old in 1962, but already there have been two attempts to overthrow the government. A third came in June 1962, when Puerto Cabello became the scene of one of the bitterest fighting in modern Venezuelan history, now known as the Porteñazo.. The bloody struggle between government forces and guerrilla rebels in the naval base who had the support of the residents of Puerto Cabello. Hector Rondon, who was in Caracas, travelled sixy miles to arrive just in time to see government tanks rolling into the town. Official casualty figures for the military were 47 dead, 89 wounded. But unofficial estimates put the toll, including civilians, at more than 300.