August 14, 2007

Lonely Planet, petro-state style

Katy says: Pick up a Lonely Planet Venezuela and it'll tell you that one of the highlights of the country's Eastern shore is the seaside village of San Juan de las Galdonas, set on a remote inlet on the breathtaking Paria Peninsula, in Sucre state. Sandwiched between a picture perfect Caribbean beach and a rainforest mountain, it's just a special place, unspoiled by mass tourism.

More than a few foreigners settled there in the last thirty years, convinced they had found a slice of paradise. It's no wonder - Christopher Columbus stumbled across this stretch of coastline 500 years ago and came to the same conclusion.

Having heard all this, my friend Roger decided to drive out there for his vacation this year. The other day he wrote in to tell me about it. He said that, though it sure looks pretty, the mood in San Juan de las Galdonas has changed rather drastically since Lonely Planet last dropped in for a visit. The place might look like it was purpose-built for tourism, but these days, the townies treat visitors more as a nuisance than an opportunity.

To hear him tell it, it doesn't take long before you start noticing something isn't quite normal about San Juan de las Galdonas. The town is overrun with very expensive cars. People behave aggressively toward tourists. A deafening, thumping reggaeton pours out of every car, house and business. Parts of the once pristine vegetation around the town have been squatted on and crime has shot up.

What the hell is going on here? Asking around, Roger found out: the town has become a magnet for smugglers and drug traffickers.

One of the more profitable venture apparently involves the town's only gas station. It's being used as a port of departure for gasoline smugglers, who ship it off to nearby Trinidad and sell it at multiples of its regulated price. Rent-seekers that we all are, it looks like a lot of people in town have decided that arbitraging gas in Trinidad is a much more attractive way to make a living than making piña coladas for tourists. I guess this is what Petrocaribe is all about, right?

Obviously, PDVSA and the National Guard are in on this scam. Roger tells me that several gas trucks have to go to San Juan every day to refill the gas station's deposit. Any marginally awake bureaucrat would have found it odd by now that San Juan "consumes" as much gasoline as Maturín. The National Guard is, in fact, supervising the whole operation.

As for tourists, the town folk are doing what they can to keep them away. People like Roger, who only came looking for a parasol and a cold Polarcita to keep him company on the beach, get in the way of their little operation, and a mean-spirited campaign is underway to drive out the foreigners who run the beachside guest houses (posadas).

Roger spoke at length to the owner of the "posada" he stayed at. She's an older Swiss lady, who came to this place looking for a bit of tropical heaven and built her guest house from of scratch. She has genuine affection for the people, for the country and the overwhelming nature that surrounds her. Her affection does not extend, however, to the squatters who took over the lush, green patch of mountainside directly in front of the entrance to her business. What used to be a wall of green is now a shantytown, and the unending reggaeton serves as a constant reminder that she would be better off leaving.

Ever the Swisswoman, she ventured all the way to the state capital, Cumaná, to speak with the Sucre government's tourism commission about her problem. The official there told he couldn't help her, but that if - cough-cough - she decided to call it a day, he could find a buyer for her guest house in two days.

Roger tells me his vacation left him depressed, as if the general lawlessness that is gripping the country has reached even its purest, most picturesque places. At this rate, it won't be long until we see the walls of Angel Falls covered with graffiti glorifying the revolution.

On his way out of town, he saw a couple of teenagers hitch-hiking and decided to give them a lift to Carúpano. They were awfully nice, as kids tend to be in that part of the country, but they sadly reported that the whole town is being spoiled. In the town's only high-school, the girls' main aspiration is to bed one of the narcos running the show: it's easy to spot them, they're the only ones who can afford the flashy cel phones and showy motorbikes.

There's a book, based on a soap opera, making the rounds in Venezuela and Colombia: Sin tetas no hay paraíso - literally, "No tits, no paradise," set in the Colombian city of Pereira. It's a dramatic take on how the main aspiration of poor girls in Pereira's slums is to get a boob-job and land a nice narco-"Goodfella" to wisk them away from the barrio life.

Just as the lure of easy drug money is proving too much for any prudish Pereira girl to resist, the lure of a 300% return rate for siphoning gasoline is too much for the good people of San Juan de las Galdonas.

Sin tetas no hay paraíso, y sin rentas no hay revolución.