Venezuela in the Chavez era: a reporter's view
More than a year later, after saying tests showed he was free of cancer, Chavez won re-election. Eventually, he announced the cancer was back, but he still has not said what type.
One morning in January, I noticed dozens of young men had blocked an avenue by dumping trash in the road and setting it ablaze. Police in riot gear lined up and pushed the embers off the pavement, while the protesters milled around on the sidewalk.
They explained that they'd been demanding jobs at a construction site where the government was building public housing, but the company in charge wouldn't hire them.
"The only thing we want is to work," said one of the protesters, John Jairo Bello. "We're hungry to work because we have children. We have to eat."
The nervous, uncertain look in their eyes reminded me of the young men who had stolen my family's belongings and left us on the highway back in 2005.
With the guns pointed at me, I had wondered about the robbers: Who are they? Off-duty police officers trying to supplement their income? Or simply a gang of young toughs who prey on foreign tourists? What desperation drove them to this?
I remember putting my head down and laying my hands on the back of the front seat as the robbers demanded money and jewelry. I slowly pulled my wedding ring off my hand and reached for my wallet.
Our son, just shy of 1 year old, began to cry in his baby seat. My wife hummed a lullaby, and that quiet, noble song had brought me enough clarity to think how we might escape.
As we passed through a tunnel, I told the guy in the front seat: "You've got everything now. You can leave us anywhere."
On a stretch of freeway flanked by slums, they finally pulled over. The car sped away carrying our suitcases. Alone, we embraced nervously, and then walked on pushing our son in his stroller through the darkness.
As I prepare to leave, I know I'll miss the macaws flying past my window and the spectacular views of El Avila, the forested mountain that towers above Caracas.
I also will remember the rivers, polluted and majestic.
The Guaire River runs through Caracas filled with sewage and flanked by the encampments of drug addicts under freeway overpasses. Back in 2005, Chavez had pledged a full cleanup, saying on television, "I invite you all to go swimming in the Guaire soon."
Recently, as I drove across the river, I noted it still smelled of sewage and detergent, and it seemed a fitting metaphor for Venezuela's many unresolved problems. They existed before Chavez burst onto the scene, and they're likely to remain long after he's gone.
A few years ago, I swam a race at the meeting of the Orinoco and Caroni rivers, a grueling endurance test of 3.1 kilometers (1.9 miles) that's an annual tradition.
With hundreds of others, I stepped into the mud-brown waters, and we stroked out into the middle of the Orinoco. The challenge was staying on course amid the strong currents, which knocked some swimmers off track. I was proud to make it to the other shore with the majority.
Now this, too, seems like a fitting way to think of the challenges that lie ahead for Venezuelans.
While some people call the situation hopeless or insist that one political camp or the other holds the answers, I take the view that the country's problems can be solved. The challenges are many, but Venezuela has plentiful oil earnings, creative entrepreneurs, and a strong sense of national identity that transcends the pro- and anti-Chavez political divide.
They must now make it across a turbulent stretch, aiming for the shores of a better future as a united nation.
Ian James has been the AP's bureau chief in Venezuela since 2004. He finished his assignment in the country this week.