Baptism of fire: my first, turbulent year as the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent

Tom Phillips takes a moment to reflect on the deepening strife for residents of Bolsonaros Brazil, Amlos Mexico, and a Venezuela now claimed by two men

It’s a balmy Caribbean evening and after a punishing day covering Venezuela’s crisis I’m decompressing on my hotel balcony above what was once one of Latin America’s great cities.

Below, a sequined canopy of amberlights flows north towards the mountains that separate Caracas from the sea – a deceptive picture of nocturnal tranquillity in this fast unravelling nation.

Then, without warning, the lights flicker and fail. The metropolis beneath disappears.

For the fourth time in three weeks Venezuela’s capital – and at least half of the country – has been plunged into darkness by the once-unthinkable implosion of a nation that has come to dominate my first year as the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent.

“Maduro [Venezuela’s leader, Nicolás], coño’e tu madre,” voices cry through the shadows. “Maduro, get fucked.”

I had hardly touched down in the region – after six years covering China – in spring 2018 when an unceasing and largely unexpected swell of upheaval began in my new reporting patch.

For my first mission I set off for the Brazilian Amazon to cover the human spillover of Venezuela’s economic meltdown and, fortuitously, the rise of the man set to become Brazil’s first extreme-right president, who was campaigning there and had conveniently checked into my hotel.

“What would you do on your first day as president?” I asked Jair Bolsonaro, a conservative firebrand famed for his toxic views on women, race and sexuality, during a press conference by the pool.

Anti-government
Anti-government protesters clash with security forces in the surroundings of La Carlota military base in Caracas on 1 May after a day of violent clashes on the streets of the capital. Photograph: Matias Delacroix/AFP/Getty Images

Back then, nobody expected the self-styled “tropical Trump” to win, perhaps not even Bolsonaro himself. But his reply – belligerent,disjointed and vaguely unhinged – offered a perfect foretaste of what was to come after his landslide election six months later. “[Brazil is like] a patient whose … whole body needs amputating,” Bolsonaro declared, signalling the ruptures ahead.

From the Amazon I made for my new home, Mexico, where an equally momentous change was under way as a populist from the other end of the political spectrum closed in on the presidency.

In Ecatepec, one of Mexico’s most violent and deprived cities, I watched Andrés Manuel López Obrador – or Amlo as most know him – mobbed by exultant supporters certain he would rescue them from a swamp of corruption and crime. “He’s one of those men who is only born every 100 years,” one elderly fan gushed of her leftist lionheart, whom critics call the “tropical Messiah”.

A fortnight later Amlo trounced his opponents, vowing to usher in an epoch-making rebirth that he compared to independence from Spain and called, with no little hyperbole, “la cuarta transformación” – Mexico’s fourth transformation.

Further south in Nicaragua change looked imminent too, as mass protests swept the Central American country and President Daniel Ortega looked on the brink of falling.

On the frontline of the uprising, the revolutionary’s demise felt like a matter of time. “He’s been attacking the people, killing the people. Now the people want him out,” one young mortar-toting mutineer insisted as he escorted me to the heart of a former Sandinista stronghold that had been overrun by rebels.

In the capital, Managua, students who had barricaded themselves inside Nicaragua’s oldest university were adamant Ortega was finished. “The people have woken up – and there’s no way of putting them back to sleep,” one enthused.

But a year later Ortega remains in power, despite being declared part of a “troika of tyranny” by a Trump administration seemingly bent on bringing Latin America’s authoritarian left to heel. Many of the young rebels I interviewed have fled abroad or been jailed.

Aerial
Aerial view of the Zocalo square during AMLO Fest to celebrate Mexico’s new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City, Mexico on 1 December 2018. Photograph: HANDOUT/Reuters

In Venezuela, meanwhile, the situation was going from intolerable to unsustainable, as the economy flatlined, a humanitarian crisis deepened, and thousands of hungry and hopeless citizens streamed into neighbouring countries each day.

In August, after a failed attempt to assassinate him, Maduro unveiled a supposedly visionary recovery plan to tame hyperinflation and promised “an economic miracle” was on the way. But three months later – when I arrived to cover the 20th anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s election and his ill-fated Bolivarian revolution – I found a country in ruins.

The mood among government opponents – by now most of the population – was funereal. “People do not understand what is happening in Venezuela because it is too hard to believe,” one despairing doctor told me, lamenting how his oil-rich homeland had become “a war-torn nation – without a war”.

None of us knew it then, but within weeks the atmosphere would again shift dramatically.

The new year had hardly started when a young opposition politician called Juan Guaidó shot to fame, declaring himself Venezuela’s rightful leader and promising to force Maduro from power. Yet another historic shake-up appeared on the cards in Latin America.

When we met at his Caracas HQ in February, Guaidó – by that point recognised as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president by most western governments and, crucially, Trump’s White House – fiddled constantly with his smartphone and insisted his push for change was irreversible. Venezuela was heading for a renaissance comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Then came the crippling blackouts that cast millions of Venezuelans into the gloom and Maduro’s position further into question. During a visit to Venezuela’s second city, Maracaibo, we saw post-apocalyptic scenes of destruction and deprivation that offered a spine-chilling glimpse of the country’s possible future.

“I thought it was the start of a civil war,” a traumatised local journalist remembered of the carnival of looting outside her home.

Finally, and equally without warning, came last week’s attempted uprising against Maduro, which catapulted Venezuela back on to the front page and its future into even greater uncertainty.

As I write this from a plaza near Venezuela’s embassy in Mexico City – where portraits of Chávez and Maduro still adorn the walls – some are wondering if Guaidó’s movement is fading – as happened in Nicaragua, despite the initial conviction Ortega was doomed.

But after a year of twists and of turbulence, only a fool would try to forecast what comes next – for Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Amlo’s Mexico, and, least of all, for a Venezuela now claimed by two men.

Latin America is not an “operational concept”, a Brazilian foreign minister once mused, hinting at the unwieldy nature of a vast and complex region containing 33 countries and more than 630 million people.

As I enter my second year here, it’s not a predictable one either.

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