Most successful financial operations of Venezuela in recent years have not taken place on Wall Street, but in primitive gold-mining camps in the nation’s southern reaches. With the country’s economy in meltdown, an estimated 300,000 fortune hunters have descended on this mineral-rich jungle area to earn a living pulling gold-flecked earth from makeshift mines.
Their picks and shovels are helping to prop up the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro. Since 2016, his administration has purchased 17 tonnes of the metal worth around $650 million from so-called artisan miners, according to the most recent data from the nation’s central bank.
Paid with the country’s near-worthless bank notes, these amateurs, in turn, supply the government with hard currency to purchase badly needed imports of food and hygiene products. This gold trade is a blip on international markets. Still, the United States is using sanctions and intimidation in an effort to stop Maduro from using his nation’s gold to stay afloat.
The Trump administration is pressuring the United Kingdom not to release $1.2 billion in gold reserves Venezuela has stored in the Bank of England. U.S. officials recently castigated an Abu Dhabi-based investment firm for its Venezuela gold purchases, and have warned other potential foreign buyers to back off. The existence of Maduro’s gold program is well-known. How it functions is not.
To get a glimpse inside, Reuters tracked Venezuela’s gold from steamy jungle mines, through the central bank in the capital of Caracas to gold refineries and food exporters abroad, speaking with more than 30 people with knowledge of the trade. They included miners, intermediaries, merchants, academic researchers, diplomats and government officials. Almost all requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, or because they feared retribution from Venezuelan or U.S. authorities.
What emerges is the portrait of a desperate experiment in laissez-faire industrial policy by Venezuela’s socialist leaders. U.S. sanctions have hammered the nation’s oil industry and crippled its ability to borrow. The formal mining sector has been decimated by nationalization. So Maduro has unleashed freelance prospectors to extract the nation’s mineral wealth with virtually no regulation or state investment.
The Bolivarian Revolution now leans heavily on ragtag labourers such as Jose Aular, a teenager who says he has contracted malaria five times at a wildcat mine near Venezuela’s border with Brazil. Aular works 12 hours daily lugging sacks of the earth to a small mill that uses toxic mercury to extract flecks of precious metal. Mining accidents are common in these ramshackle operations, workers said. So are shootings and robberies.
“The government knows what happens in these mines and it benefits from it,” said Aular, 18. “Our gold goes into their hands.” Maduro has also received a crucial assist from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, a fellow strongman who has likewise sparred with the Trump administration.
Venezuela sells most of its gold to Turkish refineries, then uses some of the proceeds to buy that nation’s consumer goods, according to people with direct knowledge of the trade. Turkish pasta and powdered milk are now staples in Maduro’s subsidized food program. Trade between the two nations grew eightfold last year.
But scrutiny is intensifying as Venezuela’s politics reach the boiling point. In recent days, many Western countries have recognized Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido as the South American nation’s rightful president.
Maduro’s adversaries have called on foreign buyers of Venezuela’s precious metal to stop doing business with what they say is an illegitimate regime. “We are going to protect our gold,” opposition legislator Carlos Paparoni told Reuters in an interview.
The gold road begins in places like La Culebra, an isolated jungle area in southern Venezuela. Here, hundreds of men labour in crude mining operations that would be at home in the 19th century. They excavate mineral-laden dirt with picks in hand-dug tunnels, hauling it out with pulleys and winches.
Their activity is laying waste to fragile forest ecosystems and spreading mosquito-borne diseases. Miners complain of shakedowns by military forces sent to guard the region, whose homicide rate is seven times the national average. Venezuela’s ministries of defence and information did not respond to requests for comment.
Miner Jose Rondon is used to hardship. Now 47, he arrived in 2016 from northeast Venezuela with his two adult sons. His bus driver’s salary could not keep pace with Venezuela’s hyperinflation, which the International Monetary Fund projects will hit 10 million per cent this year. The three men net roughly 10 grams of gold monthly from backbreaking work. Still, it is roughly 20 times what they could earn back home.
“Here I do much better,” said Rondon, resting in a crude bunkhouse strung with hammocks. Gold in hand, miners head to the town of El Callao to sell their nuggets. Most buyers are unlicensed, small-scale traders working in cramped shops fitted with alarms and steel doors.
“The state is buying gold, everyone is buying gold, because it’s what is doing well,” said Jhony Diaz, a licensed wholesaler in Puerto Ordaz, 171 kilometres (106 miles) north of El Callao. Diaz says he buys gold from traders and resells every three days to the central bank.
Because Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, is worthless every hour someone holds it, the state pays a premium over international prices to make it worthwhile for those who could smuggle gold out of the country to exchange for dollars.
Traders who sell to Diaz end up with bricks of cash to carry back to El Callao and other gold-rush towns to pay miners, who use it to buy food, supplies and send whatever is left to their families.
Gold purchased by the government is smelted in the nearby furnaces of Minerven, the state-run mining company, according to a high-ranking employee. It is then transported to the vaults of the central bank in the capital Caracas, 843 kilometres (524 miles) away.