Venezuela: Then & Now

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The past few months have been difficult. The situation in Venezuela grows exponentially worse each day (which sounds impossible for a situation that seemingly reached rock bottom ages ago). Not everyone here in the U.S. has a complete understanding of what’s going on, and I know that. But recently, I started realizing just how many people carry this image of Venezuela as a country that has always been this way. A place of corruption and violence. Dark, dangerous, damaged. I started noticing this sense of lamentable acceptance in conversations (mostly from my peers) and was struck by the perception.

So I started thinking. And writing.

I’m no historian or journalist. What follows is simply my attempt to describe Venezuela’s current situation and how it differs so acutely from the country my parents grew up in. To paint a picture of Venezuela now in the context of Venezuela then. Through the lens of my family, I followed the evolution of my country across generations and wrote this to prove that no, we have not always been this way.

And that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re fighting.

I hope this helps.

*Note: I’ve omitted names for safety. Quotes have been translated and lightly edited for clarity. Glossary can be found at the end of the article.

My madrina‘s response is almost dreamlike as she tells me about the life she used to know.

“We were prosperous,” she says in Spanish. “You could go out at any hour of the night without any danger — or at least, no more danger than any other big city at the time. Nothing compared to today. You could buy food and medicine. There were no lines. No shortages. And you always found what you needed at the store.”

It’s 1970, and Venezuela is the richest country in Latin America and one of the 20 richest in the world. Social harmony is maintained by government investments in public programs. Kids play in the streets. Teenagers pack for weekend trips to the mountains and beaches. College students spend hours cramming for a degree in the newest, most popular career track: computer science. They say it will be the biggest game-changer. Their ticket to the rest of the world.

The nightlife booms. If you arrive at the club earlier than 2am, you’re early. The biggest danger in sneaking home after sunrise is your parents finding out you broke curfew. But come on, it’s not like you were going to head home before getting some post-club asquerositos right?

Music, food, culture, and prosperity abound. Workers enjoy the highest wages in Latin America, thanks to Venezuela’s oil reserves and booming economy.  Sure, we have problems. What country doesn’t? Politicians scheme, poverty exists, crimes occur. But all in all, there is no better, more beautiful place to grow up.

This is the Venezuela of my parents’ youth. The Venezuela I grew up hearing stories about. The Venezuela of my dreams, where I always imagined I might one day return. Or at the very least, travel around with nothing but a camera in my hands and a backpack on my shoulders.

“We were one of the most admired and envied democracies in the Americas and the world,” says my dad with a smile. “Professors from all the most prestigious institutions around the world came to Venezuela during their sabbatical years to teach in our universities. Petroleos de Venezuela was one of the most important and admired companies in the world, boasting the best executives and workers in the industry. JFK visited our country, as did many other US presidents during their first trips, recognizing our stability and importance.”

“My experience growing up in Venezuela has been one of the best of my life,” adds my tia. “Well… except for the last 18 years.”

A New Normal
It’s April 19, 2017. The “Mother of all Marches” is underway, and once again chaos reigns supreme on the streets. Venezuela is about to embark on over three months of straight protests. Over 75 civilians will die before the summer starts and well over a thousand will be injured.

There is no food. There is no medicine. Supermarkets are empty, and hospitals are falling apart. It’s not uncommon to see a well-dressed man scouring through the trash, desperately looking for any scrap of food to take home to his family.

Kids dodge bullets in the street. Teenagers pack their backpacks with gas masks and helmets. Medical students treat injured protesters where they fall, improvising to save lives.

This is the Venezuela of our youth. The Venezuela I just barely escaped from, saved by the very career my parents excelled at that led them to the United States shortly after I was born. The Venezuela I now see on the news for all the wrong reasons. The Venezuela that has my family and my dreams caught in the crossfire.

One line gets repeated over and over among the oldest adults in my family: “We are living in an entirely different country.”

Nothing to Lose
Venezuela has been protesting almost non-stop since President Maduro took power following President Chavez’s death in 2013. The student protests in early 2014 received global attention, but that only led to an even stricter crackdown from the government. In December 2015, the opposition took control of the National Assembly, claiming a legislative majority for the first time in years — only to be blocked by Maduro at every step since then.

Today, we find ourselves once again at the precipice of a total collapse of the state. Earlier this year, the Venezuelan Supreme Court moved to dissolve the opposition-led National Assembly, with Maduro announcing plans to rewrite the constitution in what many have seen as an attempt to consolidate and cement his power.

“We have been living on the border edge of a civil war, and no one is helping us,” my dad says desperately.

All of these recent events have triggered a wave of daily protests throughout the country. Since April 1, civilians of all ages have been out in the streets every single day, protesting for new and fair elections, the release of political prisoners, and access to humanitarian aid.

And above all, an end to the violence.

“We protest because there is an urgent need to raise our voice against the crisis we are living in,” says my cousin, 30. “Against shortages and hunger — and most importantly, against the abuses of power and the violation of our most basic human rights.”

“It’s a war,” says a 35-year-old protester named Carlos in an interview with NPR. “These are kids, most of them under 25… they have nothing to lose, they don’t have a job, they don’t see a future, and they fight for their life.”

The protests are startlingly well-organized. There are seven levels. Those at the front lines go face-to-face with police daily, dodging tear gas at best and bullets at worst. They are Level 1. The ones you see in photographs and videos on the news. We call them warriors.

“I protest because it is one of the only ways — no, actually it is the only way — left to help my country,” says my oldest cousin, 33. “I still believe in democracy. And I still believe 100% in our freedoms.”

His sister agrees. “We are now finally seeing the effects of our efforts in the streets,” she says with conviction. “We have shown the government and anyone else watching that we are united — and that is something worth supporting.”

No Easy Solution
Venezuela is not facing one complex problem, but rather multiple inter-connected crises that seem to get more entangled every day.

Not only is the country experiencing the worst economic crisis in its history, but the situation is amplified by a brutal humanitarian emergency that has led to mass shortages of food and medicine throughout the country. According to the International Monetary Fund, inflation is projected to reach 720.5 percent this year and go as high as 2,068.5 percent by 2018.

And this crisis is hitting hardest on hospitals and health networks throughout the country. Without access to basic medicines and equipment, such as antibiotics and soap, hospitals are falling apart — which is the last thing you want in a country whose capital ranks as the most violent city in the world.

This has in turn led to worsening levels of violent crime and poverty. According to the latest Venezuela Living Conditions Survey (ENCOVI 2016), 81 percent of Venezuelan households are living in income poverty and eat fewer than two times a day.

Another recurring phrase among everyone I spoke to, repeated almost word for word: “La gente se muere de hambre.” Our people are starving.

“Where did my Venezuela go? Where did we go wrong?” my dad says in disbelief.

A Threat to Democracy
With so many humanitarian and political crises around the world, it can be difficult to determine what, if any, real effect they might have on American life. But this is different. This is imminent. And way too close to home.

Venezuela’s current conditions have been gradually undermining the country’s democratic institutions. The right to peaceful protest, the right to vote in fair and free elections, the freedom of speech and the press — all are guaranteed in Venezuela’s constitution and all have been consistently threatened by the unlawful imprisonment of political opponents and the blatant legislative abuses from the government against the opposition.

And a disintegration of the government could have serious financial and security implications not only for Latin America but for the United States. Apart from the huge impact on oil prices that could lead to economic risks both in the U.S. and worldwide, the country’s collapse could cause a power vacuum and give rise to terrorism and drug trafficking, destabilizing the region and potentially creating a refugee crisis.

On the other hand, there are those who may say that a complete disintegration of the government is exactly what is needed to reset and build up the system. But again, this is a crisis with no easy solution.

One can argue Venezuela is a victim of poor governing and bad luck. But that doesn’t mean that any of this couldn’t have been avoided. When Chavez came to power, he split the country in two. He created an unprecedented division, fueled by hateful rhetoric and fierce partisan rivalries that erased any semblance of the unity and pride the country had always been known for. He encouraged distrust in the media and railed against his opponents. He fed the divide and positioned himself as the only savior.

Under his rule, we lost control of our own fate. We lost our democracy.

If you’re American, this all may start sounding uncomfortably familiar. Not long ago, it may have seemed a little silly, if not impossible, for something like this to happen here. But know this: Venezuelans once thought the same.

Where once a typical day consisted of going to school or work, hanging out with friends until nighttime and staying out partying until sunrise, of going out for a meal (and not having to let everyone know you made it safely through the marches) or even just the simple act of going to the store and finding and buying whatever you needed.

Now the days are marked by protests. They are marked by deaths and injuries and arrests. By the electrifying fear when there are marches scheduled and the tense rare calm when there is not. Your day is guided by updates on where the protests will be so you know just when to leave your house if you want to avoid (or join).

For most, a typical day is simply waiting in endless lines for food. And when that fails (as if often does), rummaging through the garbage.

Venezuela was once a country of prosperity and, well, normalcy. You didn’t walk the streets in terror and rush to the (relative) safety of your home before sundown. You didn’t frantically search the trash on your way home, desperate to not return empty-handed. You didn’t wait in lines for full days for milk and toilet paper.

Venezuela was beautiful and healthy and rich. A country to grow up in and grow old in. One that boasts anything and everything you could ever possibly want in a country — beaches, mountains, deserts, rainforests, jungles, cities, suburbs, towns, villages, and so, so much more. It’s a country magnified by a rich and complex culture that thrives on family and camaraderie and a heritage passed down through generations.

“It was my Venezuela…” says my dad with heartbreak in his voice. “The Venezuela with seven stars on our flag. Where the doctor and engineer trade jokes and stories with the lady at the arepera. Where we were all Venezuelan above all, and there was no hatred over what we had or the way we dressed or the color of our skin. Where we were all compadres, hermanos del alma… We were all panas.

He begins to chokes up. “I can’t go on. It boils my blood and breaks my heart that this is happening. That we will never be able to share our Venezuela with you, all the incredible memories and adventures in the most spectacular, beautiful places. I can’t go on. I can’t bear to think that you will never enjoy una arepita pela’a on the road to Boca de Uchire or enjoy un parguito frito in those simple beautiful restaurants hidden off the mountain road… No, I can’t go on…”

A final quote from my cousin, translated below (though it doesn’t do it justice):

“Crecer en Venezuela para mi fue lo máximo, amo a mi país aunque no sea perfecto. Crecer en Venezuela es tratar al de corbata y al de servicio de la misma manera, con la misma educación, es sacar un chiste para cada situación (que a veces no es tan bueno), es escuchar gaitas desde octubre aunque debería ser en diciembre, es hacer caravana cuando te gradúas y rayarte la franela cada vez que pasas de año, es tener panas, es salir de la rumba directo a la arepera o al perrero, es saber que dentro de cada grupo de amigos o familia siempre hay un negro o una negra. Particularmente, crecer en Caracas es querer tu cerro Ávila.”

“Growing up in Venezuela for me was the best, and I love my country despite its imperfections. To grow up in Venezuela is to treat the boss and the janitor in the same way, with the same manners; to have a joke on hand for every situation (which may not always be the best idea); it’s listening to gaitas in October even though they should be played in December; it’s tailgating through the city after graduation and having all your friends sign your shirt at the end of each school year; to have panas; to go straight from the club to the arepera or to the perrero; it’s knowing that within each group of friends or family, there’s always un negro o una negra. And more specifically, to grow up in Caracas is to love tu cerro Ávila.

This is the Venezuela we are fighting for. And despite everything, my country marches on. Venezuela will rise again, thanks to the resilience and hope and the outstanding, never-ending courage of its people, who will fight for it and protect it and love it — even at the cost of their own lives.

El que se cansa pierde. Pa’lante mi Venezuela. Estamos siempre contigo.

Further Reading

My Past Articles on Venezuela

Glossary

  • Arepa — a typical Venezuelan food made from ground maize dough
    • Arepita pela’a — slang for a plain arepa
  • Arepera — arepa vendor
  • Asquerositos — Venezuelan-style hot dogs, topped with literally everything you can imagine (ketchup, mustard, mayo, coleslaw, chopped onions, potato chip crumbs, shredded cheese, and more); often sold in little street carts at all hours of the day and night
  • Compadres — a way of addressing a close friend or companion
  • El que se cansa pierde — slogan from the protests; translates to “those who get tired, lose”
  • Estamos siempre contigo — translates to “we are always with you”
  • Gaitas — Venezuelan folk music, often played during Christmastime (though not to be confused with aguinaldos, which are specifically Venezuelan Christmas carols)
  • Hermanos del alma — literally translates to “soul brothers”; friends who are closer than family
  • Madrina — godmother
  • Pa’lante — abbreviated slang; translates to “keep moving forward”
  • Panas — a simple all-inclusive term for your friends; used even towards people you’ve just met
  • Parguito frito — a typical Venezuelan dish of fried fish
  • Perrero — hot-dog vendor
  • Tia — aunt
  • Tu cerro Ávila — Caracas (Venezuela’s capital) is a valley surrounded by mountains of which the most famous one is El Ávila; it is the pride and joy of every caraqueño (a person from Caracas)
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