Venezuela’s Caribbean paradise: “expropriate it” says Chávez

| Oct. 10, 2011 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Financial Times

In his latest bullish expropriation, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, has announced his intention to seize properties on the white, unspoiled beaches of Los Roques, a Venezuelan archipelago in the Caribbean popular with high-end tourists from Latin America and the world – who often bring their own yachts.

Chávez would like to seize those yachts and use them to ferry visitors between the paradise islands – after having taken over property on them for state tourism.

“I’ve always said we should nationalise Los Roques,” Chávez said in a phone call to state television. “There are some houses that were illegally built. We’re going to take them over!” he said, before attacking the “high bourgeoisie” and “international set”.

Just north of Venezuela’s coast, Los Roques are the crème de la crème of Caribbean beach resorts. Crystal clear waters attract snorkellers and divers while the white sands of deserted beaches are one of the few luxuries on Venezuela’s Caribbean coastline, much of which is littered with empty beer cans while a mix of pop and reggae blares out of cars parked on the sand.

However, Venezuela has done very little to attract foreign visitors – despite having, for example, the world’s highest waterfall and vast amounts of untouched jungle – perhaps because the economy has long been fuelled by oil, leaving little need for tourists’ cash. Rampant crime, strict foreign exchange controls and a lack of travel infrastructure make Venezuela a destination for only the most hardened backpacker.

If Chávez does expropriate Los Roques, it will follow hundreds of similar moves, often against foreign companies. ExxonMobil is currently in battle with the Venezuelan government as it fights for $7 billion it claims it is owed after its assets were seized in 2007. The company has been offered just $1 billion by Venezuelan authorities. More than 400 companies have been expropriated this year alone.

Chávez has returned to his bullish and upbeat self, having completed four rounds of chemotherapy over recent months. Rumours of an urgent hospital visit last week were quickly quashed by the maverick leader as he invited reporters to watch him play baseball outside his Miraflores presidential palace. As campaigning for next October’s presidential elections begins in earnest, expect more brash expropriations and PR stunts from the Venezuelan strongman.