The road into town from the Santiago Mariño Caribbean International Airport on Venezuela’s Isla de Margarita is dotted with billboards showing pictures of President Nicolás Maduro, welcoming delegates to the 17th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
The Indian delegation at the Summit, which began on Saturday in Porlamar, the commercial capital of the state of Nueva Esparta of which the island of Margarita is part, is led by Vice-President Hamid Ansari. The Vice-President called on President Maduro in his first official engagement after he arrived in the country, officially the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and held talks on a range of issues of mutual interest.
Maduro, who narrowly won the presidency after the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013, appreciated the Indian system of democracy, officials said. Ansari was accompanied at the meeting by Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar.
The Caribbean island of Margarita, lying about 40 km out to sea from the South American land mass, was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1498, and is famous for its pearls and beaches. It is a popular holiday destination, and the place from where the famous tequila-based cocktail gets its name.
Isla de Margarita has not, however, escaped Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis, the fallout of a variety of factors topped by plummeting crude oil prices — and about a month ago, the island, like many other parts of the country, had completely run out of food.
“We now have food here because you (the media and other paraphernalia that has accompanied the NAM Summit) are here. Until last month we had nothing, no bread, no milk, no sugar, no coffee. Fishermen used to take people by boat to another place to buy and stock up food,” said Samantha Leon, who runs a travel company on the island with her father. The 38-year-old mother of a boy aged 15 and a girl aged 10 said she had flown to the capital Caracas to buy supplies only a week ago.
Not surprisingly, President Maduro is not very popular in Margarita, especially among the youth. There are few takers for the government’s claims on the billboards: “Venezuela, a country that has increased its human development index from 0.69 per cent to 0.76 per cent”, and “Venezuela, a country that exceeds an employment rate of 93 per cent”.
Crime, says Leon, is a huge problem. “You go to the mall and when you return, you find the wheels and battery stolen from your parked car. If we go to the cinema, we go in a taxi.” Indeed, most cars driven by locals on the road are old, run-down models.
Most people remember happier, more laidback times when it was common to find youths spending entire nights at the discotheque, from 11 pm to 7 am. An Indian official posted here recalled how Margarita used to be a happy, lively island, until the crisis hit. Now, venturing out after sunset is not without risk. “You cannot hold your cellphone in your hand. Many people here carry guns,” said the Indian official. There are only about 50 families of Indian origin in this country, officials said.
All along the main highway from the airport, heavily armed police and Army troops stand guard. At 4.30 pm, Porlamar, the Summit venue, looks as though it is under a curfew, with all shops, markets and plazas shut, and very few people on the road.
The financial squeeze and shortage of commodities is all-encompassing, and has affected almost everyone on the island. Public transport has started to cost three times more than what it did not too long ago, local people said, and the government has decided to end working hours at 3 pm instead of the 6 pm earlier.
Inflation is so high that a monthly salary of 20,000 Venezuelan Bolivar (about Rs 1,35,000) is not enough to buy even the basics. A litre of milk costs 2,000 Bolivar (Rs 13,500), double what it cost a month ago. And coffee, a habit with the people here, isn’t even available.
“If you do get coffee, it will cost about 3,000 Bolivar for about 500 grams,” says Samantha. There have been reports of a dozen eggs costing $ 150 (Rs 10,000).