Black beards, eye patches, hook hands and teeth yellowed by rum – that’s the pop-culture definition of a ‘pirate’. But in economically-collapsing Venezuela, pirates are no longer just fictional characters – they have become a worrying source of criminality along the free-for-all Caribbean coast.
Since 2010, Venezuela has witnessed one of the worst socioeconomic crises in the history of the Americas. The causes? The government’s overreliance on the country’s abundant but cheapening oil resources, coupled with extensive political corruption and unsustainably subsidized social programs, among others. The situation has become so critical that the IMF recently predicted a one million percent inflation rate by December 2018. To put this into perspective, until the recent currency replacement, you needed 2.6 million bolívars and suitcase to carry them to buy one roll of toilet paper.
So what do pirates have to do with all this? Well, as Venezuelans leave their jobs and their country in search of better lives elsewhere, a new breed of criminals is taking advantage of the law and order vacuum, especially along the scarcely-patrolled coast. In 2017, Oceans Beyond Piracy documented at least 71 major incidents in Caribbean waters, including theft, hostage-taking and requests for ransom – in true 17th century pirate style, some crew members reported being forced by their attackers to abandon ship by jumping into the dangerous Caribbean Sea.
While similar cases have been recorded in nearby Honduras, Nicaragua and Haiti, nowhere has the surge been more significant than off the coast of Venezuela. This is because hyperinflation has led to not only shrinking incomes but also dire living conditions – most stores are now empty and dozens of cities are left without electricity for hours at a time. It is then no wonder that some Venezuelans have resorted to desperate measures. Coast guard authorities, who are supposed to protect the waters against robbers and smuggles, have been boarding anchored vessels and demanding money and food. In response, boats have increasingly started anchoring farther off the coast and fishermen have turned to night fishing, leaving the Venezuelan economy and society in a state of medieval terror and instability.
Once the most feared social group, pirates have slowly become romanticized as the subject of successful Western movies and books. But Venezuela’s pirate plight highlights two important aspects about piracy. Firstly, ‘pirates’ are not just satirical characters; they are flesh and blood criminals, cruising along the Caribbean coasts in search of their next target while governments are unable or unwilling to tackle them. Secondly, although rightly demonized throughout history, pirates do not just disturb the existing order – they radically challenge it. As Marcus Re
diker argues in Villains of All Nations, pirates were not simply solitary lawbreakers – they were often fighting for a different kind of proto-democratic, multi-cultural, egalitarian society. Pirates have always represented a romantic notion of escape, and maybe the Venezuelan wrongdoers are no exception. They are just another generation driven to despair by a corrupt government unwilling to change in order to provide for its population’s basic needs.