Alois Heigl paces restlessly up and down in his restaurant in Vienna's 6th district, one gesture, one word chases the next when he talks about his home country Venezuela. Suddenly he stops and, with tears in his eyes, struggles for the right words: “Venezuela is dead. There is no horror movie that is worse than the reality in Venezuela. It will take three or four generations for the country to get back on its feet, ”he whispers. A while earlier, the author and restaurateur, who turned his back on Venezuela for political reasons in 2000 and moved to Vienna, the land of his grandparents, had started the conversation with Latin American casualness. In the end all that remains is astonishment.

Alois Heigl, Venezuelan author and restaurateur
Alois Heigl, Venezuelan
Author and restaurateur

The images that are currently reaching us from Venezuela prove him right: people are rummaging in the garbage for food leftovers, beating around a piece of butter, drinking water from the sewers. 87 percent of the population lived in poverty in the previous year, two-thirds of the Venezuelan lost 2017 therefore weight, on average eleven kilos, and there is hardly any medicine. Already 2,3 million people have left the 30 million-inhabitant country in recent years. The International Monetary Fund puts this year's inflation rate at 1.370.000 percent, Venezuelans can only go to get their income back as quickly as possible. In the meantime Venezuela even has to pay for petrol. This sounds insignificant given the rampant famine, but has a high symbolic note: Finally, in the most oil-rich country on earth, the fuel was so heavily subsidized that you could have refueled for a euro one million liters.

And there is no improvement in sight: the port of Caracas is orphaned, there are hardly any imports into the country. Austrian companies have delivered 2015 goods worth 140 million to Venezuela, 2017 only 11 million euros. The Foreign Trade Center Caracas was recently closed - it simply depends on the fact that the Venezuelan government from year to year provides less foreign currency for goods imports, explains WKO business delegate Hans-Jörg Hörtnagl.

currency devaluation

Verwaist supermarket shelves in Caracas
Orphaned: supermarket shelves in Caracas

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro presented his solution to the problems in August: a drastic currency devaluation and adjustment to the black market, on which the prices of most commodities have long been based. In addition, the Bolivar currency has been replaced by the new "sovereign Bolivar", five zeros have been canceled and the sovereign Bolivar has been linked to the cryptocurrency Petro, which is underlaid with crude oil. Already it can be stated that this has brought nothing. Even today, people are standing in front of banks for hours, hoping to at least get some cash. But there are not enough bills, and the banks spend in many places only around one euro per person.

However, people are dependent on cash because the supermarkets where they could pay by card are empty. There are foodstuffs on the black market, but they have to be paid in cash. Just like the public buses that many people depend on. A vicious circle. According to economist Klaus-Jürgen Gern of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, the currency devaluation has even increased inflation (see interview), He is also not at all clear how the new cryptocurrency should work.

Decline of the oil industry

Maduro has been in charge of the affairs of state since the death of his predecessor Hugo Chávez in March 2013. He took over a corrupt state apparatus and a dilapidated economy. And made everything worse. High debts were reacted by the printing of new amounts of money, which caused prices to rise, and wages lost value. For three years now, the country has been in a crisis that is unparalleled outside war zones.

Interview with Klaus-Jürgen Gern, Institute for the World Economy

Klaus-Jürgen Gern, economist at IfW Kiel

Only without Maduro

Klaus-Jürgen Gern from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy sees the expulsion of foreign investors as a major cause of Venezuela's misery. Now it needs confidence-building measures - and possibly the US dollar.

Above all, the decline of the Venezuelan oil industry is dramatic, as it is synonymous with the decline of the entire economy - 96 percent of foreign exchange generated oil production. The main reason for the fiasco is not the fluctuating oil price, but the subsidized or not subsidized amount. While international demand is still high, production has been falling for years and has now reached the level of the 1950s.

But instead of waiting, renewing, commissioning new oil wells, bringing technologies and skilled workers into the country, more and more production is shut down, the government is in debt, printing more and more money, losing more and more trust and slips deeper and deeper into hyperinflation.

On the decline: While the inflation rate reaches astronomical heights, Venezuelan GDP has been falling for years, here compared to the previous year.
On the descent: While the inflation rate reaches astronomical heights, Venezuelan GDP has been falling for years, here compared to the previous year.

Adiós, democracia!

The economic misery of the country goes hand in hand with a progressive erosion of democracy. At the latest since Maduro established a constituent assembly last year, whose election was massively falsified and boycotted by the opposition, and thus disempowered the parliament, in which the opposition holds the majority of seats, Venezuela is no longer a democracy. The chairman of the assembly, Diosdado Cabello, is widely regarded as the number one in the state and one of the country's most corrupt politicians. The freedom of the press is massively limited, all important positions in the judiciary, politics and economy are occupied with followers. And the regime-loyal military enjoys special privileges, also controls the flourishing smuggling. The violence on the streets is increasing daily, Venezuela is one of the most insecure countries in the world. Caracas has been among the top 3 of the world's most dangerous cities for years, 3.387 murders were officially counted, and the number of unreported cases is likely to be significantly higher. "From 2017 clock, you can barely trust the street in Caracas," says Heigl. This is also because ex-president Chávez has upgraded parastatal militia to fight the opposition.

20 years Chávez

Picture of Nicolás Maduro with banana

The downsizing and democratization of Venezuela did not happen one day at a time. 20 years ago, on 6. December 1998, Hugo Chávez won the presidential election in Venezuela, proclaiming the "Bolivarian Revolution" and the "socialism of the 21. Century ". He promised to eradicate poverty through redistribution, nationalization and investment in education and health - combined with a populist cult of personality.

Only the people Nicolás Maduro (o.) And predecessor Hugo Chávez are hungry
Only the people are hungry: Nicolás Maduro (o.) And predecessor Hugo Chávez (u.)

Alois Heigl, who lived near the capital Caracas at that time, reported critically on the new strong man in his radio broadcast. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested and detained for three weeks without any contact with the outside world. "Even then I knew: Venezuela is going to the dogs," says Heigl today. At that time, most of Heigl's Venezuelan friends saw this differently, they were impressed by the new president, who brought so much fresh air into politics.

And many supporters around the world were convinced that Chávez would make Venezuela fairer with his large-scale social programs. He also received a lot of cheers in Vienna when he visited the city for the EU-Latin America Summit 2006. In performances before various solidarity groups, he was received like a pop star with standing ovations. Sabine Kurtenbach, Acting Director of the GIGA Institute for Latin American Studies in Hamburg, even then quarreled with enthusiastic colleagues about the Venezuelan head of state: "The socialism of the 21. Century 'is no more than a label that Chávez has stuck to stand out from others. Chávez has been partially heroized by the Left around the world, but above all he was a populist like others, "she says.

Among other things, Chávez bathed in the crowd during a performance in the Viennese Urania and then announced his trust in God and Fidel Castro. In addition, Chávez was able to rely in his term but above all on the ever-rising oil price, which increased more than tenfold from his election victory 1998 until his death 2013. The revenue from the crude oil export bubbled.

Already in the 1970 years ruling President Carlos Andrés Pérez had nationalized oil production - at that time Venezuela was one of the 20 richest countries in the world. Chávez, however, went one and a half steps further. After a two and a half month strike by employees of the state-owned oil company PDVSA against its policies in 2002, Chávez, acclaimed by the state media and supporters as a "comandante", dismissed half of the workforce, 18.000 individuals, and denounced them as "enemies of the state". Irreplaceable know-how was lost. As a result, international companies withdrew along with their technologies. The treatment of the sand-containing heavy oil was the PDVSA due to lack of technology and lack of expertise now increasingly difficult.

At the same time, large portions of the oil revenues were embezzled. The Venezuelan economist and opposition leader José Guerra told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that since Chávez came to power, more than 1.000 billion dollars has flowed from oil exports into the country. "If the story had gone differently, Caracas could look like Dubai today, a city of superlative skyscrapers," writes the newspaper - but instead of reaching for the sky, Venezuela is on the ground today.

The aggressive nationalization strategy did not only affect the oil industry, hundreds of companies from the steel and cement industries, for example, were nationalized as well as the entire electricity and food supply. Chávez not only scared off foreign investors, but domestic companies, too, no longer opened new factories for fear of expropriation and hardly invested in new facilities. Many people lost their jobs as a result. The blame for the misery Chavez and his followers always sought in the United States and Venezuelan big businessmen, who were supposedly from Miami for a destabilization of Venezuela sought.

Continental quake

The Venezuelan crisis is now also busy throughout South America due to the large number of refugees. "Colombia has handled the refugee crisis in an exemplary fashion so far, and it is to be hoped that it will remain so despite enormous burdens. Even though large parts of Colombia's population are themselves poor, the refugees from Venezuela are welcomed with open arms, "says economic delegate Hörtnagl. However, this must not hide the fact that in many countries in South America, including Colombia, the situation is very tense and the large number of Venezuelan refugees is increasingly regarded as a burden. So Brazil has moved military to the borders, and Peru recently calls for entry to a passport that many Venezuelans do not possess - previously handed an identity card.

Sabine Kurtenbach, GIGA-Institu
Sabine Kurtenbach, GIGA Institute

Meanwhile, the Organization of American States does not exclude even a violent overthrow of Maduro by a military intervention. Sabine Kurtenbach attacks her head when she talks about these considerations. "Who should do that? Moreover, such statements strengthen only the regime. "She observes a great polarization across the continent:" I have the feeling that I was back in the 1980 years, when the ideological fronts were so strong. Since the Venezuelan side and its supporters Nicaragua, Bolivia and some Caribbean countries, criticism is automatically denigrated as ideologically motivated - and the other side then plays it the other way around. They all barricade themselves in their trenches. "

Maduro's life insurance

In Venezuela, protests against the government killed more than a hundred people last year. The fact that things have calmed down recently is not so much due to an improvement in the situation as the fact that for most Venezuelans, everyday life is about nothing but survival. Many people are also dependent on government food subsidies. "As long as the opposition is divided and there is the safety valve of escape, there is also little organized. Added to this is the support of China and Russia, which enables the regime to survive economically, "says Kurtenbach. Recently, the Chinese Development Bank again granted the state-owned Venezuelan oil company PDVSA a $ 5 billion loan - over the past ten years, China has lent the country around 60 billion dollars. Sabine Kurtenbach believes that in Venezuela "it will continue for a while".

Caracas burned during the anti-government protests in the years 2014 and 2017. They have nothing
Caracas burned during the anti-government protests in the years 2014 and 2017. They have nothing

On the way back from the last visit to China in mid-September, Maduro stopped in Istanbul. A video shows him there in a posh restaurant, eating steak and smoking cigar. "You only live once," the president comments on the evening. The video made waves in Venezuela. "That's not good when your own people are starving. Something like that can be the drop that makes the barrel overflow, "says Kurtenbach. Alois Heigl does not believe it. Too many Venezuelans who could oppose the regime have already left the country. He himself visited his homeland for the last time eight years ago. After his cousin was shot in the street, he decided to stop working in Venezuela for the time being, only to contact by phone and e-mail: "To the five percent of my friends who are still there who have not yet left the country. "

Photos: Heigl, UNICEF / ECU / Arcos, Sunsinger / Shutterstock, Kdekristian / Wikimedia Commons, Silvia Andrea Moreno / Flickr, Giga, Marquinam / Flickr