“La cosa está arrecha, mi pana” — “things have gotten rough, my friend” — was the voice message Daniel Torres left me a few weeks ago from Caracas. It was a reminder that life in the Venezuela of Nicolás Maduro can only get worse. For Torres, better known as “Gordo”, the driver of a string of foreign journalists who have washed up in Caracas, things got deadly rough.
Last month, he was shot dead after a puny argument in a country where life is increasingly worthless. The Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia says Venezuela’s deaths by violence totalled 16,506, or 60.3 deaths per 100,000 people, last year — far above any other country in the Americas.
Gordo provided wheels for many foreign correspondents — the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, El País, the BBC, The Economist, Bloomberg, AFP, Folha — always offering a window into his country’s descent into the void. In one of the world’s deadliest cities, his streetwise manner made correspondents feel safe — and even saved my life once.
A chunky, loveable man, Gordo was a struggling street cabbie when he was discovered by two former BBC correspondents, not long after the death of the socialist leader Hugo Chávez in 2013. In a city infamous for blackouts, he became the guiding light for correspondents witnessing how Venezuela’s dire situation unravelled under Chávez’s anointed successor. He was the peephole through which readers could see the oil-rich country’s spectacular descent into a hoodlum state from a revolutionary beacon.
Gordo served as a living prototype of Venezuelans suffering from food shortages. Always the hustler, he obtained maize flour to make arepas — the country’s alternative to a sandwich — from bachaqueros, black-market sellers, or from contacts with the government programme that subsidised food for poor Venezuelans.
He danced through the country’s polarisation. He could comfortably charm, in his own words, the malandros (thugs), the Chavistas (pro-government), and the escuálidos (pro-opposition). During a whisky-infused evening, he became infatuated with a leading opposition figure, after having spent the afternoon with armed colectivos, government-supported thugs.
Even in death, Gordo was hit by shortages and spiralling inflation: a lack of materials has boosted funeral prices, and his family was forced to pay extra because his body would not fit a regular coffin.
Chávez used to hail his socialist project as “the pretty revolution”, claiming it was both peaceful and democratic. But Gordo showed reporters that peace and prosperity were rapidly eroding. When Mr Maduro’s rule spurred protests in 2014 and in 2017, Gordo steered through streets showered by tear gas canisters. When a hefty anti-riot policeman stopped him, the driver charmed his way out of trouble with a laughing “Chamo (kid), you cannot fit into that body armour.”
Since I last saw Gordo in Caracas, most things have become worse. Nearly 5m Venezuelans — about 15 per cent of the population — have left the country. No one knows how many have died from coronavirus, and, most probably, no one ever will in a country with a crippled health service where the government keeps a tight grip on information. Mr Maduro remains anchored to power, even though he has been unable or unwilling to halt the economic and social unravelling. The opposition remains divided and the US has been unable to push through changes.
Gordo’s long succession of decrepit cars chronicled the country’s slide into a failed state. Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, is struggling with gasoline shortages. The father of seven first had to sleep in his car while queueing for fuel, then he sold the vehicle because he was unable to maintain it.
When the pandemic kept many correspondents away from Venezuela, Gordo resorted to whizzing through the streets of Caracas, transporting passengers on a motorbike. He died after he was accused of scratching a car: the driver shot him in the head. A man who lived by his wits could not survive there any longer. Things have become rough. But now we won’t have Gordo to tell us how.
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