Venezuela: Nation In Crisis, Land Of Unfulfilled Potential

Venezuela, a land that made 19th-century travelers marvel at its natural treasures, has become one of the last places any tourist would visit these days.

High season in Venezuela's Sierra de la Culata national park
High season in Venezuela's Sierra de la Culata national park
Karelys Abarca

CARACAS â€" 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 â€" 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."

New regrets

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.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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