It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday in early June, and I’m in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, on the 10th floor of the finance ministry. One side of the building overlooking the dilapidated downtown has enormous portraits of Simón Bolívar, South America’s great liberator; Hugo Chávez, the socialist revolutionary who won the presidency in 1998; and Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, who rules Venezuela today. The presentation I’ve been summoned to see starts with a PowerPoint slide in Spanish. It reads: “The Attack on Venezuela.” I’ve been in the country less than 24 hours. Let the propaganda begin, I think.
A few weeks earlier, in mid-April, I’d received a WhatsApp call dangling the possibility of an interview with Maduro. It was from Hans Humes, a New York-based hedge fund manager whose specialty is investing in places few others dare to tread. He owned some of Venezuela’s defaulted debt in an emerging-markets fund, knew people in the government, and had recently returned from Caracas. While Maduro is a fan of Bloomberg Television, I figured it was a long shot. Plus, the last interview he gave to a foreign journalist—Univision’s Jorge Ramos in February 2019—ended after 17 confrontational minutes.
But Maduro’s situation had become desperate. Venezuela, once the richest nation in South America thanks to its vast oil reserves, had been strangled by U.S. sanctions and frozen out diplomatically. Its economy had contracted a staggering 80% in eight years. Some 5.4 million Venezuelans—a fifth of the population—had fled elsewhere to escape the hardship and political oppression. Those who remained have endured a terrible humanitarian crisis.
The sanctions on Maduro and his authoritarian regime, significantly expanded in early 2019, were supposed to spark a popular uprising and maybe even a military coup. Instead, he outlasted Donald Trump. Now the Venezuelan government was showing signs it wanted to reset relations with the U.S. and negotiate terms of democratic elections with the domestic opposition. “I think he’s ready to talk,” Humes said.
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