The Corner


A Voice from Venezuela

Nicolás Maduro, then Venezuela’s foreign minister, with boss Hugo Chávez in 2010 (David Mercado / Reuters)

I have known Robert and Ruth Bottome for ten years. In a 2013 journal from Oslo, I described them as “an elegant couple from Caracas.” They sure are.

Over the years, there was a pattern. I would see the Bottomes at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a human-rights gathering replete with Venezuelans. And I (and others) would ask them, “Are you still in Venezuela?” In other words, “Have you left yet?” Something like 4 million Venezuelans have now done so. And the Bottomes would answer, “We are still there, grim as it is.”

They stayed until fairly late in the game — until last year. They are now in Florida. I talked with Robert the other day. I wanted to check in with him.

He was born in 1935. He was educated in America and talks just like an American (when speaking English). (And just like a Venezuelan when speaking Spanish.) For more than 40 years, he was an editor and writer of newsletters, etc., on the Venezuelan economy. Of course, this meant dealing with politics, too. He is now retired.

Let me pause for pronunciation: Robert, or Toby, pronounces his name “Bo-TOME.”

Democracy came to Venezuela in the late 1950s, he points out. The country had a two-party system, “and it worked fairly well,” he continues. “But both parties had defects. And by the time the 1980s rolled around, the parties had become pretty stale. They lost public support.”

In 1988, Carlos Andrés Pérez was elected (having been elected before, in the mid-1970s). “And he promised to overhaul the system. To open things up.” In 1992, he was the object of, not one, but two coup attempts. The first was led by Hugo Chávez — “a silver-tongued populist and Cuban-supported lieutenant colonel.” The coup failed (as would the second one). “But with his silver tongue, Chávez gained support, particularly among the poor in Venezuela.” He promised that his day would come. Tragically, it would.

Pérez brought about some important improvements, says Bottome: liberalization, privatization. But these were insufficient. Nor did Pérez enjoy sufficient support. “The political parties didn’t support him,” says Bottome. “The intellectual community, which was basically Left, didn’t support him. Even the business community was reluctant to support him.” Why? “Because they were used to being protected: by tariffs, by price controls, by whatever.”

It was in 1999 that Chávez took power. And “the very first thing he did was begin to demolish the oil company.” He phased out most of the professionals and put in his supporters. “There was a very dramatic showdown between the company and Chávez, and he fired 23,000 people overnight. I hate to tell you how many millions of hours of training and knowledge and expertise were lost.”

All the while, Chávez partnered with the Cuban dictatorship, of course. Cuba, in fact, “began running key pieces of the government from the inside.” There are different estimates of how many Cubans there are in the Venezuelan government — “but the most frequently cited number is 22,000.”

I ask Robert Bottome a question: Is it hard to watch what is happening in Venezuela from the distance of Florida? “It’s hard,” yes. “And there is a phenomenon which I haven’t quite figured out,” namely this: “People are incapable of spotting evil or corruption in the Left. I don’t know how else to say it. People would always say, ‘Fidel Castro has done wonderful things for the Cuban people.’ Well, it wasn’t true. They said the same thing about Chávez, and they still do. It isn’t true.”

Another question for Mr. Bottome: Did you ever think that your country would slide backward as it has? No. “I didn’t think it could slide this far or this fast. I couldn’t believe it could ever get so bad. Chávez nationalized the cement industry. Now we have to import cement.” And so on and so forth. “Everything he touched turned to rot.”

Here is one difference between Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro: “Chávez wasn’t a dumb-bell. The guy who came after him is a dumb-bell.” Chávez had flair, unfortunately. “He could charm anyone. I saw him speak in England. There, he was a capitalist! He left all the people happy as hell. He had this ability to sound like what the audience wanted to hear.”

Bottome says that it took him a while to realize what Chávez was, fully. “For the first couple of years, I thought he was going to be just another center-left guy. But no.”

I say to Bottome, “You must have seen awful things over the last several years.” Oh, yes. “All the diseases we had gotten rid of in the previous 80 years — malaria, tuberculosis, etc. — came back.” Babies started to die at shocking rates. And hunger?

“The state took over cattle farms. Now there’s no meat. The state took over cornfields. Now there’s no corn. The only way you can get food, practically, is to import it. And now there’s not enough money to do that. One of the startling statistics of 2017 was that the average Venezuelan lost nearly 25 pounds during the year. Now, some would argue that was good — we were probably too fat. But this is not exactly the way to go about weight loss.”

Juan Guaidó, age 35, is now the leader of the opposition. “Brilliant kid,” says Bottome. He is making all the right moves, in perilous circumstances.

How about the military and its capacity to tip (away from Maduro and the chavista regime and toward Guaidó and the opposition)? So far, the military is not budging, says Bottome. He explains.

“Think about the infiltration by Cuba. Now say that I’m a top officer [Venezuelan officer]. It’s dangerous for me to talk to the guy sitting next to me about what is going on. It’s dangerous for me to be candid. Why? Because I’m not sure who is with the Cubans and who isn’t. More important, all the top military people are involved in corruption: be it drugs, minerals, or even oil. They are happy with their incomes. Furthermore, where the hell am I going to go, if I’m a top officer, in with the regime? The whole world has turned against me.”

So, the top officers will likely stay where they are. They will stick with the regime come what may. But the officers below them? “That’s what we are waiting for,” says Bottome. Venezuelans are waiting to see what these junior men will do. “Will they or won’t they [tip to Guaidó]? Can they or can’t they? We don’t really know.”

Anyway, that is a synopsis of my conversation with Robert Bottome. When he ceased publishing his newsletter, VenEconomía, in 2016, there was an article about him in the Miami Herald. Joseph Mann, a colleague, was quoted. “I always asked him, ‘Why haven’t they put you in jail?’ And he would always tell me that he wasn’t important enough, which wasn’t true.” The truth was, “he was very brave to continue for so long.”

It is a pleasure and honor to know Robert “Toby” Bottome — and the formidable, gracious Señora Bottome, Ruth.

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