Sinking Rich: Speedboat Racing Through a Failed State

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Sinking Rich: Speedboat Racing Through a Failed State

You ready? I just asked him if it was dangerous and he just went Very reassuring Doing that for eight hours My God! I’m on a bridge in the middle of the jungle, straddling one of the largest rivers in Latin America These are the waters of the Orinoco Basin and I’m here because this week, they’re playing host to the longest speedboat race in the world There’s 120 speedboats racing nearly 900 miles, and the craziest thing of all is that all of this is taking place in Venezuela A country on the verge of collapse, in the grip of a severe economic and humanitarian crisis Surely not the time or place to be indulging in an expensive hobby like powerboat racing This annual event is little known outside of the dwindling ranks of the Venezuelan elite Despite their country spiraling into economic and political chaos, they’re carrying on a four decade tradition of speeding across the country in expensive boats, while guzzling cheap beer and expensive whiskey We’re going to be the champions of the race! But for most Venezuelans, everyday life is intolerable Food and medicine are dangerously scarce, while crime, inflation and unemployment rates are dangerously high And when we arrived, a million people had just flooded the streets of Caracas to demand the ouster of Venezuela’s authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro In an attempt to suppress media coverage of the march, the government was deporting foreign journalists on arrival Because we came to film a speedboat race, we slipped through the dragnet But in Venezuela, not even something as prosaic as a boat race can avoid being co-opted by politics Hence why, we weren’t the only TV crew on this bridge We’re at the María Nieves bridge Desperate to divert attention from the growing anti-government protests in Caracas, state television was bizarrely recasting this phalanx of well-heeled Venezuelans as foot soldiers in the Socialist revolution The people of this race, of “Our Rivers Are Navigable,” have been and are dreamers just like our Commander [Chavez] We avoided the protest and immediately hit the road Here I am, on my way out of Caracas We’re barreling towards the Orinoco Basin It’s going to be a five hour drive out to this boat race Each day, the boats race to a remote location along the river, where we would spend the night So far away from the city, and the crowds and the nightmare, is this rather pleasant countryside I was about to spend a week bombing down rivers on the longest speedboat race in the world, with Venezuela’s one percent But the accommodations were to be, spartan Apparently we have to camp in someone’s like, courtyard or something? This looks fun! This village has limited running water and electricity, but every year, the locals offer up their backyards for the racers to pitch their tents That’s going to be me in the middle of the night Come on It doesn’t help to scratch -Hi -Hi Charlet, good to meet you We’re in the Cunaviche community It’s the first stop in the ‘Our Rivers Are Navigable’ event And this is where we’re going to set up camp So go ahead and unpack your things We will all be safe here Safety is a constant conversation during the race And our military escort was never far away Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and kidnappings for ransom have risen a 170% in just the last year So a load of expensive speedboats moving throughout the region on mass is like blood in shark-infested water Because while these boats may not look super flashy, those who own them, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, businessmen, have it all In a country where everyone else has nothing This is beef from Cunaviche, Venezuela Thank you so much Where shall I put my tent? Any place Ant’s nest. Ants Ants It’s bad -Not good -Okay So yeah, we got to put our tents up before it gets dark Never put a tent up before Powerboat racing and camping Get you a girl who can do both I was quickly learning that while these races might have money,

there was nothing pretentious about them, as they got down and dirty, leaving me in the dust with their party stamina It got way past my bedtime, so I retreated to my tent to try to sleep, but lay there, listening to the music, which never stopped By way of a wake-up call, they simply turned up the volume at dawn You’ll never be able to get a good night’s rest during this race In this race you have to nap through the day and relax That’s how the races are here It’s too exciting to sleep No, no, you’ll never get a full night’s sleep Every day, we’d be hitching a ride on a different boat The race was divided into several categories, including speed, endurance, family, even jet skis And, appropriately, a prize for the best party boat Is this your first time at this rally? No, no. I’ve attended about 15 races And now it’s a family tradition Are you competing at all this year? Overall, we facilitate the logistics needed for a race of this magnitude And we’re responsible for assisting anyone who needs help during the race We were at the mercy of Mother Nature The Amazonian delta is fairly hostile territory and it’s easy to get lost in the tributaries, with hidden rocks lurking under the surface, ready to crush the dreams of inattentive racers Only about half the boats make it through the week Some of these machines reach speeds of around 100 miles per hour Miss Twister is a highly organized team with a powerful racing catamaran The captain runs a tight ship, leaving nothing to chance It took us four to five months to prepare for this event We travelled, looked for replacement parts and prepared our engines so they can perform at the highest levels Every year we come here to win The races are very competitive, but we’re also highly prepared to win the race this year as well The team Sarataka, while no less confident in their abilities, take a slightly different approach Sarataka means that you’re kind of drunk We’ve been champions five times already How many whiskies? -How many whiskies? -That’s a lot of whiskies How many whiskies? I mean, this box A lot of whiskey A lot of whiskey -A lot of whiskey -A lot of whiskey And why whiskey? Because it tastes really good -Tell her why Venezuelans love whiskey We love whiskey because it’s good for our health It’s good for your health -They love whiskey What makes a champion? Is it whiskey? No, no, it’s our perseverance, but they’ve labeled us as a disorganized, boisterous team, but we’re actually very organized We’re a team of five close friends What were the challenges that were here this year, that weren’t in previous years? The challenge was to get parts through customs It was challenging to find spare parts Since last year we haven’t been able to find a motor filter You can’t find it in Venezuela The country’s current situation is not very good I don’t want to talk about politics because politics are a waste of time What we need is to be happy and have peace in this country like we are having now Enjoy the race and Venezuela as we are doing now This is beautiful Don’t you think so? We’ve come here to refuel I’ve never seen anything like it You see, there’s a tanker up in the bridge, and then there’s all these pipes just leading down to the water and that’s how people are refueling I haven’t seen a toilet since I left Caracas airport I’ve had to become very resourceful in how and when and where I empty my bladder It wasn’t easy to start with, but, today I’ve found three unique ways to pee that I’ve never done before In a bucket, in the woods, and off the back of a boat, to name just three, so, don’t believe the hype We have choice here in Venezuela Capitalism is alive and well Up on the bridge I met Daniel,

the race president Our event doesn’t have the infrastructure for refueling so that’s why we have to circulate these gasoline hoses The supply is guaranteed by PDVSA, the government-owned gas company In Venezuela you only pay one US cent per liter We still have, without a doubt, the cheapest fuel in the world Well, one liter bottle of drinking water costs way more than a liter of fuel Daniel wasn’t exaggerating Venezuela sits on the largest proven oil reserves in the world All of that production is controlled by the government, which subsidizes the price of fuel Meanwhile, bottled water isn’t subsidized, and government mandated price controls have insured that it’s expensive and hard to come by Even on this race, we were constantly drinking weak beer, which is more readily available, in a futile attempt to quench our thirst -See you later, ma’am! -See you tomorrow This is Urbanita Doesn’t look very urban, does it? Irony that the name Urbanita is not lost on me As I looked for a spot to pitch my tent for the night, we were summoned to an initiation ceremony A sort of hazing ritual for first timers on the race I have to give you this I have to give you this because apparently, something bad will happen to it otherwise Egg! Egg! She wants egg! Okay, go with God You’re all rosed! All right, all right! She makes it look good And no race day was complete without a party deep into the night Morning! Breakfast! We stopped for a minute It’s day three Already, the landscape is completely Three, is it? Yes Yeah It’s day three already The landscape has transformed gradually, it’s basically jungle and you can really feel like that we’re in like, the lungs of the world We’re on our way to Colombia, just for one day, it’s only half an hour away While the competition was still going strong, this stop in Colombia had nothing to do with the race This was a shopping trip A chance for these Venezuelans to fill their boats with provisions to take home after the race was finished Because not even the Venezuelan elite are exempt from shortages We’ve seen so many of the racers, people with means, you know, people who have money but there’s just nothing to buy in Venezuela Stocking up here on bags of rice, boxes of vegetable oil, bags of sugar It’s crazy, because everything is available here How difficult is it to find this stuff in Venezuela right now? You can’t find it, and if you do it’s very expensive A single deodorant costs $5-6,000 Venezuelan Bolivars [$540USD] And a box of six deodorants costs $7,000 Colombian pesos [$2.33USD] Six deodorants costs $7,000 Colombian pesos [$2.33USD] Even if you have wealth in Venezuela, does it make it any easier to stock up on basic necessities? No, it’s not easy, it’s not easy Everybody is in the same boat? Everyone, everyone You may have the money, but not a place to buy those things It’s been really, really hard to get cash in Venezuela

because dollars are basically illegal, it’s illegal to exchange dollars for Bolívares, the local currency And it’s just also a nightmare, there’s no infrastructure to help us do that Can I exchange $100 US? $100? Yes Thank you Thank you Twenty -Forty -Forty This is kind of on the very edge of legality, because Bolívares aren’t meant to cost that much, but this is $100 US dollars I can’t do this any more subtly Anywhere else in the world, you can just pay on your card, but if I was to do that here, I’d be getting the official government regulated currency exchange rate which is 12 Bolívares to one dollar So, you’ve got to do it in cash to get the street value, which is 1,000 Bolívares per one dollar With their boats stocked full of Colombian toilet paper and toothpaste, everyone turned their attention back to the race The booze-fueled Sarataka had broken down and dropped out First boat’s coming in But the disciplined favorite, Miss Twister, was repeatedly the first boat to arrive each day That noise makes me feel funny! This is crazy We’re on a bus, driving off road in the torrential rain to visit an indigenous community that lives in this sort of Amazonian region, because part of the race is to provide sort of social work, social services for those more needy I call it a bus, I should have said ‘party bus’ The birthday girl! The birthday girl! This is wild! The racers were providing aid in the form of free medical care Many people blame the government for the state of the country, so it felt strange posing for photos during the gifting of government branded desk calendars and T-shirts, to some of those most affected by Venezuela’s economic nightmare I can’t hear you! One, two, three! Our Rivers are Navigable! What are you doing? I’m extracting his second molar He has a substantial amount of calcification loss, it’s very advanced And I’m going to perform a simple extraction There is very little access for them to even get to the hospital, or to any state-run clinic And [as doctors] on this boat race, we do all of this We do this every year Emperor Nero was criticized for playing the fiddle while Rome burned So in spite of the altruistic intentions of the racers, a speedboat race on the Orinoco, underwritten by a government being protested by millions, could be seen as partying while Venezuela drowned The minute I stepped off the boat, one of my fellow racers said to me, “Take your earrings off, hide your necklaces” It’s funny, because I mean, yes, I can hide my jewelry, but, it’s going to be a bit harder to hide those very expensive boats moored up in the harbor To better understand the relationship between the race and its government sponsor, I caught up with one of the racers who helps lead the relief effort each year The race is funded by sponsors, and one of those is the government oil company And I noticed you were handing out things on behalf of the oil company Does that mean that you work for the government? No, not at all. We simply find sponsors, as you call them, and we take advantage of the assistance they offer We try to spend the least amount possible on mobilizing our team But it all goes to the communities that we visit Why would the government want to be associated with an event like this? For publicity And nothing else It’s not because they care, but simply for publicity They’re trying to project through you or any media outlet that everything’s fine here, but it’s not It felt hypocritical that a government willing to bask in the reflected glory of this race also placed hating rich people at the heart of its ideology Denouncing the rich was a key political strategy of Hugo Chavez, the founding father of Bolivarianism Condemn the rich To be rich is to be an evil person, an inhumane person

And every day they’re drinking whiskey. Almost every day! And they do drugs, cocaine and travel But that’s their culture They just party And Nicolás Maduro, Chavez hand-picked successor, is peddling the same message today The bourgeoisie class don’t care about their country They’re unpatriotic And as Venezuela spirals further towards complete collapse, the government still relies on this narrative, transferring blame from its own mismanagement of the economy to a shadowy cabal of elites This race has been running since the 70s To get a sense of how things have changed over the years, I spoke to veteran racer, Joaquín Sánchez, who has hardly missed a single event in three decades You’ve been to about 30 of these races, is this year especially different because of the economic situation? Yes, of course it’s different Many people can’t participate in the race for this reason But what started happening 17 years ago is that they’ve been trying to install a communist regime here And that’s important because look what happened in other countries like Russia, Korea and Cuba And that has deteriorated our economy, but we’re going to continue with our races And we believe in continuing this tradition because we’re sure that better times are coming soon But better times couldn’t feel further away for most Venezuelans We have woken up after no sleep In our, motel? I can’t decide if it would’ve been best to camp My poor producer woke up and there’s not an inch of her legs that aren’t covered in bed bug bites The law respecting virtue and honor Glory to the brave people who shook off the yoke The law respecting, virtue and honor -Venezuela! -Long live Venezuela! But they’re speedboats, they said You’re going on a glamorous speedboat race, Charlet We need oil for the engine, so we’re stranded here, currently I’m a bit broken, I’m in that phase where nihilism isn’t a setting Throughout this race, we’re stopping off in places that are arguably some of the worse hit by the economic situation here How does it make you feel, what you’ve seen? Look I’ve been coming here for decades And these towns hosted this race with a lot of joy In this northern part of the country, because I like to walk around town, I would hear people say, “Those assholes are multimillionaires.” I would hear them “That boat is worth more than my house.” I would never hear things like that before That kind of resentment This country, in spite of all the things that they’ve done to us, in spite of all the limitations we have, in spite of… well, I won’t elaborate too much on all the problems, but, we are brave people And we are alive! Fuck! During these past two years we’ve been able to organize this event in Venezuela regardless of the difficulties we’re going through But thanks to all your support we’re able to keep this going Because of your passion we’re able to continue working and putting a lot of physical and mental effort into this

And we’re very proud that we were able to pull off this worthwhile event Venezuela is destined for great things, and our event, Our Rivers are Navigable is an example of that A round of applause to you on behalf of the Board of Directors Why is it so important to push that message, that the rivers are navigable? We want to show that Venezuela is more than what you see It’s a tourist destination that has a lot of potential then what is commonly portrayed on the international stage This is another side of Venezuela and it’s a side we want people to see This year was more difficult than the previous year both economically and logistically Thank God we were sponsored and supported by both the private sector and the government We can’t get away from the politics, it still affects us and our event We were all very worried, but we continued to organize our event Lately it’s been very difficult in Venezuela to organize an apolitical event My organization is very grateful that you were bold enough to come to Venezuela and see a different side that you don’t normally see on the international stage It’s the last day of the race I can’t believe it I can’t believe we’ve made it Day seven, this is the sprint leg So, all the people in the racing category have been saving their engines for this moment, to try and win the sprint That also means that we have to go a lot faster than we’ve been going for the past week, to keep up with them It’s going to set off any moment We don’t know who’s going to win, but I’m really excited! Everyone, the mood has really changed, the party is over, people are like, tinkering with their engines, it’s very serious now Serious business Oh no, there’s a problem with our engine! Can I help? -Can we help you? -No Just like that. We’re toast Mother’s cunt! -Something happened? -Yes I was going super fast -Here goes nothing -Hit it What did he say? When we determined the boat wasn’t going to start, we had no choice but to abandon ship if we were going to make it to the finish line in time to watch the winning boats coming in We eventually made it to the final destination of the race, where a lavish party was unfolding at the finish line At last, everyone was able to let their hair down in style Everyone except me, that is This is the finish line, we’re all here peering into the horizon, trying to see which boat’s coming first They should be arriving any minute There’s a very charged atmosphere right now Oh my God, I can’t believe it! Their hard work paid off! As predicted, Miss Twister took first place There was only one winner, but on this race, the cliché ran true This week, it truly was the taking part that counts thank you all We will see you next year The race is over and I’m just about in one piece I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone And that’s been hard, this is a country where daily life is devoid of comfort zones And the people I’ve spent the week with have chosen to spend their spare time struggling on this logistically challenging rally Venezuelans have a profound love for their country In a way, this rally sort of provides a way for them to reconnect with their beloved homeland And reclaim their Venezuela, which, to be honest, their government’s been doing a stellar job of squandering over the past decade This rally has to be one of the most challenging to pull off, anywhere in the world And yet, I can’t imagine this happening anywhere else, not only because Venezuela offers the rivers to support such a race, but perhaps because of the tenacious nature of the Venezuelan people

My hat goes off to them This could only happen in Venezuela