In only takes a few seconds for Henrique Salas Romer to call up on his cell phone photos of two young Venezuelan women, one a beauty pageant winner and the other an athlete, that were taken after they were fatally gunned down at demonstrations opposing the economic and political policies of their nation’s current president Nicolas Maduro.
In addition, Salas Romer, who heads one of Venezuela’s leading political families, a prominence he describes as similar to that once held by the Kennedys in the United States, can speak at length about the Maduro government’s violent repression of its opponents and share his insights into the humanitarian and political crisis that has his native Venezuela teetering on the brink of chaos and collapse.
“My country is starving,” said the Yale educated economist, describing how the socialist and pro-Castro regime of Maduro and the notorious Hugo Chavez have left the once oil-rich Venezuela with not enough food to feed its 31 million residents, periodic power outages and too much gang activity for people to walk city neighborhoods safely.
The place where Salas Romer recently talked freely and candidly about his nation’s dire straits, the lobby of the New Haven hotel he has been upgrading and refitting for over a year, in itself underscores his message.
For the past two years, Salas Romer has been living in exile, close to much of his family, but more than 2,000 miles from a nation where he has devoted most of his adult life to serving the public.
Now 80, Salas Romer has been ordered not to return to the country where in 1998 he was runner-up to Chavez in a pivotal presidential election; served as governor of Carabobo, the third most populous state; is a leader of a major political party, Proyecto Venezuela, and contributes his economic and political acumen to the Venezuelan think-tank that he set up with his eldest son Henrique Fernando, also a former governor of Carabobo who now lives in Florida.
In December 2014, Salas Romer found himself linked to violent protests earlier that year and was indicted with six other prominent opponents of the government on charges they conspired to kill President Maduro and to “disturb the peace of the nation.”
Salas Romer scoffs at these charges, which human rights advocates have called a farcical fabrication. However, he also notes that the courts and prosecutors in Venezuela have been corrupted by the Madura regime.
From his home near the Long Island Sound, Salas Romer communicates with family and colleagues in Venezuela and uses his international connections, the Internet and other media to follow what is happening in homeland. With this information and his ability to converse with both intellectuals and street people when he was in his homeland, Salas Romer provides a disturbing picture of how life in his nation is rife with hunger and danger, and especially difficult and foreboding for the many Venezuelans who are poor and powerless.
A minimum-wage family, Salas Romer said, must try to subsist on the equivalent of only a few dollars per person in an economy where food supplies are not only scarce but sold at inflated prices. Meat and eggs have vanished from the diet of many Venezuelans. Even basic supplies such as toilet paper are unavailable or too expensive for many households.
As a consequence, he said at least 20 percent of the country’s approximately 31 million residents barely have one meal daily and some parents skip eating some days so that their children can.
At the same time, there is no shortage of violence and murder. Heavily armed mega-gangs, which Salas Romer said “have no respect for life,” run rampant without much interference from the Maduro regime, police or military.
Venezuela’s murder rate in 2013 was at least 15 times greater than that of the United States and four times higher than that of Puerto Rico, according a United Nations study.
The murder rate in Caracas, the capital, is considered the highest in the world, more than twice that of Baltimore and dwarfing that of New York City, which thanks to movies such as West Side Story and The Warriors, acquired the reputation in the 1960s and 1970s as being a gang-infested war zone.
Valencia, the capital of Carabobo and the nation’s prime industrial center, also was ranked in the top ten of the world’s most deadliest non-war zone cities. Although the government had claimed in previous years that the murder rate was declining, Salas Romer said that 20,000 to 30,000 Venezuelans are killed each year.
More than 1.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country, Salas Romer said, many coming to the United States. In addition, thousands have landed in nearby Trinidad and Curacao, which Salas-Romer said do not have the means to deal with the newcomers. “We could have a refugee crisis similar to Syria,” he said.
Salas Romer learned of the order formerly exiling him from Venezuela while visiting his children and grandchildren in the United States. He has a son and daughter living in Connecticut, his eldest son who had succeeded him as governor of Carabobo state, has moved to Florida and a second daughter remains in Venezeula, he said.
Taking refuge near New Haven not only brought him closer to much of a family but also is a place he knows well from his days at Yale, from vacations and family trips, and from various business activities, which now include a residence hotel in the Long Wharf section.
The plight of Venezuelans has recently begun to gain some attention in United States news media. Typical reports show murdered bodies lying on the streets where nearby Venezuelans wait on lines outside supermarkets not knowing if meat, eggs and other necessities will be available. There also has been coverage in the last month of the government opening its border for a day so that Venezeulans could stock up on essentials in Colombia.
There also is another equally disheartening side of the Venezuela story. Seeing its popularity wane, the Maduro government has come down hard on those who speak out about its policies. You can speak freely as an individual, but no one can hear you because, the Maduro administration controls the major media.
For those who take to the street or find a soap box to express their opposition to the government, the results can be violent and ugly.
Stark examples of government repression of opposition are found in the images that Salas Romer uses to illustrate his observation. These include photos of fatally wounded 22-year-old Genesis Carmona, a beauty queen from Salas Romer’s home state Carabobo, who was gunned down during the 2014 protests. This is when 43 students were killed by pro-government thugs and militia.
There also are photos of the bullet-decimated face of 23-year-old Geraldine Moreno Orozco, who was killed by National Guard members dispersing a demonstration in 2015.
Looking back to 1998, Salas Romer recalled, “I predicted that whoever was elected would establish what happens in Venezuela for the next 15 years,” he said noting that Chavez served about that long before he died in 2013 from cancer that Salas Romer and others suspect might have been mistreated in Cuba
Salas Romer had served two terms in the nation’s Congress before he became Carabobo’s first elected governor in 1990. Previously, this had been an appointed position.
Having earned high ratings for his work as governor Salas Romer decided to run for president in 1998. This election proved to be a disaster for the country’s major political parties and was a pivotal point in the nation’s history.
Both Salas Romer and Chavez, who had served prison time for an unsuccessful coup d’etat a few years earlier, ran for president as independents. The frontrunner in the eight-person race, a former Miss Universe, saw her support dwindle. Chavez, who ran on an anti-party, anti-poverty agenda, at a time when the Venezuelan economy was in a bad slump won 55 percent of the vote compared to 40 percent for Salas Romer.
What got Chavez elected, Salas Romer said, was his support among the middle class. “I actually got more votes from the poor,” he recalled. The beauty queen ended up with less than 3 percent of the vote.
Among the factors that contributed to Venezuela’s current plight, Salas Romer said, was that Venezuela essentially became part of “the Cuban empire,” which includes Nicaragua and FARC, the wealthy narco-guerillas in Colombia.
“Chavez wanted to be Castro’s adopted son,” Salas Romer said. Consequently, Cuba has a military presence in Venezuela and controls the electronic systems used in elections.
For a period under Chavez’s brand of Castro-style socialism, Venezuela appeared to be stable and able to address many of the needs of its poor, particularly when the price of oil zoomed up from $9 to more than $100 dollars a barrel.
However, the government, which controls oil revenue and what can be exported for the foreign capital it earns, did not set aside reserves and apparently billions of dollars suspiciously disappeared, were misappropriated or squandered.
With the price of oil having plunged dramatically in international markets, Venezuela has seen its foreign revenue, which funds imports, drop precipitously.
Moreover, the government had destroyed the nation’s capacity to produce needed essentials, Salas Romer observed. Consequently, a country that is bigger than Texas, Venezuela used to import about 40 percent of its food, now needs to bring in 80 percent, said Salas Romer.
The Venezuelan street gangs, drug cartels and militia types are better armed than the military and police, he said. The government, which under Chavez did not support the police, has used pro-administration gangs to put down rebellions and demonstrations rather have the blame cast on the military.
Although Venezuela’s situation is bleak now, Salas Romer does see some hope with improved relations between what he calls the Cuban Empire and the United States opening what he sees as an avenue of relief. He also expects that the Maduro government, which has lost control of the national Congress and faces a recall election, might be gone in a year. This might create an opportunity for greater democracy, although Salas Romer warns that whoever succeeds Maduro faces a very daunting task.
Other potential signs of change that Salas Romer cites are that Maduro has put the military in charge of food production, a move that the exiled leader said hints that help may be on the way. Salas Romer also noted the government has recently allowed more than a 100,000 Venezuelan to briefly cross the border that Maduro had closed to go shopping in Colombia on weekends.
The turmoil in Venezuelan also lead Henrique Fernando Salas Feo, who has taken up the Salas Romer surname because of its cachet in Venezuela, to move his family to Florida, his father said.
For now, Salas Romer, who says he is past the age when he might run for office, devotes much of his time to is nearby family members, which in Connecticut include two of his four children and seven of his thirteen grandchildren. He also has business interests in the area to keep him active.
Moreover, Salas Romer, like many Venezuelans, is a devoted baseball fan and will discuss with great pride the players from his homeland who are making their mark in the United States.
He also is pleased with the progress being made to refurbish and give a new identity to the once-drab residence hotel in the Long Wharf area that he purchased more than a year ago, pointing to the new landscaping and bright exterior of the buildings, which he says now resemble a “Swedish village.”