Hellish questions

Natalie Welsh’s dramatic true story about her escape from a Venezuelan jail raises questions about how we portray this country


Sentenced to Hell
Natalie Welsh
2009, Sphere (Little, Brown)
240 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ITIS HARD to interpret the underlying message or indeed motive of a book like Sentenced to Hell, which tells the story of an English woman who escaped from a Venezuelan jail after being imprisoned for drug-smuggling.

On the one hand, the dramatic, true story of a young mother’s escape from a notorious prison system in an exotic faraway land where the writ of Anglo-Saxon notions of justice and fairness apparently does not apply makes for a compelling narrative.

On the other hand, we are confronted with a set of moral conundrums both about the behaviour of Natalie Welsh, but also how we choose to see and interpret the behaviour of citizens of countries like Venezuela.

By her own admission, Welsh attempted to smuggle five kilos of cocaine with a street value of £325,000 out of Venezuela and into the UK for a payment of £4,000, while travelling with her four-year-old daughter Nikita.

Despite being assured by her fixers that corrupt officials at Margarita Airport would turn a blind eye to the contents of her suitcase, she was rumbled and eventually sentenced to 10 years in jail.

Venezuela’s prison system is notoriously overcrowded and violent, and there is no doubt that a ripping tale can be told about the fate endured by a young, blonde foreigner in this unforgiving environment.

Venezuela has also risen up the agenda of international authorities trying to tackle drug-smuggling as the problem in neighbouring Colombia has declined in relative terms as a result of militarisation of the war on drugs, and has been simultaneously pushed further up by the US for its own political reasons, not least antipathy to the socialism of President Hugo Chávez.

The US has itself made many, largely unfounded allegations about official links between the Venezuelan regime and drug-trafficking, and as a market is wide open to Midnight Express-style narratives that condemn Chávez or bring his regime into disrepute in any way.

Moral questions

Which brings us on to the moral questions that are left hanging by this tale. Welsh herself admits to her stupidity, and reveals all about her irrational state of mind as a crack cocaine user seeking adventure and easy money when she was caught for her crime.

But in this tale she is transformed into victim, albeit one racked by guilt, and the Venezuelan criminal justice and penal system is turned into Hobbesian purgatory that she is unfairly cast into.

We are required to put aside our feelings about the geopolitical war that has been conducted by the US against drug-trafficking – and the huge collateral damage caused to Latin American societies by the militarisation of this conflict by Washington.

We are asked to postpone the ethical questions that arise when one confronts the economic realities of this trade, and the fact that it is US, and increasingly European, consumers such as (formerly) Welsh who fund it.

We are asked to dismiss the violence and corruption in Venezuela’s prison system as symbols of a dysfunctional society with neither a proper rule of law or meaningful civil rights, without asking why one of the most resource-rich countries in Latin America has been unable to create fair and progressive criminal justice infrastructure despite the hundreds of billions it has, over the years earned in oil revenues.

The answers to all these questions are political and have as much to do with the evolution of Venezuela’s relationship with the main market for its produce – the US – as they do with the failings of Venezuelan institutions and society.

Dig deeper than Welsh’s superficial, if personally candid, narrative and you discover that the cancerous real and moral corruption that she became a victim of was nurtured over generations by unfair relations with the US oil industry, the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy, and in turn by power politics in Washington.

The catastrophic impact of those relations on Venezuela’s political process – severe limitations on its democratic development, the resulting appeal of populism and a military constantly forcing its nose into politics – are but some of the many factors that help to explain the main characteristics of the country’s flawed public infrastructure.

So while it is easy for an unsuspecting visitor to fall prey to what can only be described as a “hellish prison system”, the Venezuelan people and in particular those that shared this environment with Welsh, are as much victims in this sorry tale as she was.

Venezuela has long tried against the odds to construct a fairer and more progressive society, and it has long been and continues to be hampered at every turn in this Herculean task by the US, with its hunger for oil and regional domination, and subordinates such as the UK, seeking to regain lost dreams of global influence.

Indeed, notwithstaning the fact that Welsh may have received an even harsher sentence had she been caught in the US, such are the indignities that societies such as Venezuela have had to put up with at the hands of Washington that it is surprising that this protagonist was in fact so well treated.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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