CARACAS — Venezuela is a land of fabulous and unique landscapes. Even back in the 18th and 19th centuries, German travelers testified to its natural majesty. One of the most inspiring of these travel accounts is Carl Geldner's Notes on a Journey to Venezuela (1866-68). On Dec. 9, 1865, he recounted boarding the Cosmopolit boat for Venezuela in search of opportunities on the American continent, arriving on Jan. 23, 1866, at the port of La Guaira in the land called Little Venice. Hardly a fitting term, he thought, for such a grandiose territory, twice as big as Germany, with soaring mountains and lush greenery as far as the eye could see.
Before him, 213 years ago now, Baron Alexander von Humboldt, visited the country when it was still part of the Spanish empire. In his book Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, he describes the country's prodigious fauna and flora as part of his perfectly scientific study of the region's resources. I read with curiosity in No es cuento, es historia ("It's No Tale, It's History") by the Venezuela historian Inés Quintero, one traveler mentioned is Elizabeth Gross, who moved to Maracaibo at a very young age with her husband, also a German. She suffered from the heat and her domestic staff's disorderly conduct, as they rented out her clothes and the rooms in the house in her absence. Yet she came to love the country enough to feel far greater grief when it was time to leave and she was closing the shutters of her Venezuelan home, writing that it felt like her "ashes" were leaving the house.
That is what Venezuela is like. A place of coincidences and disagreements, a setting of the most charming and unpleasant occurrences. As Geldner observed: "In Venezuela, thieving intelligently is considered a brilliant attitude. A man in public office who can gather a fortune, without anyone pinpointing how exactly he did so, is considered a 'brilliant man' and worthy of honors. If a slight flaw were revealed in his competence, people might generously observe that there had been a 'breach of trust.' But if he were to fill his pockets in too rash a manner, he would be deemed a 'fool' who could not elude censure. The way here is to hang the little thieves and let the big ones get away with it."
Humboldt (left) in the Amazon rainforest — Oil painting by Eduard Ender, 1856
Geldner also refers to the scant importance given to time in Venezuela and how readily it is "wasted," even as he saw this as a young and dynamic nation able to swiftly change or regenerate. He too suffered for a range of inconveniences in Venezuela, admitting toward the end of his trip that his difficulties there had dealt him a "harsh blow in the fight for life."
Today, those Venezuelans who decide to leave the country, bid their farewell with expressions similar to those of Geldner and Elizabeth Gross, suggesting both exhaustion and regret. They love this country, but are disappointed by what the terrible realities they have to live through.
It is difficult to understand that a country with so much potential to attract visitors should receive ever fewer and fewer every day, because of insecurity and the socio-economic crisis. It is difficult to comprehend how an economy that used to enjoy such ample revenues from oil exports should now be in ruins. How can a country with so much, if not everything, to assure its citizens' welfare can now be one of the world's most inefficient, corrupt and impoverished economies?
The subject of the economy in this moment of crisis is even more bleak when one considers Venezuela's complicated history.