Venezuela

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Venezuela is a country of contrasts. On the surface it appears to be like many other cities and countries, with regular people going about their daily business of attending work and school, shopping in malls and eating in restaurants and roadside take-away stalls. Sure, you can see one of the biggest slums in Latin America, Petare, sprawling over the hills surrounding the capital city of Caracas, but even that sight doesn’t reveal the whole truth about this country.

Petare Slum, Caracas

Long known as a rich and beautiful land with wonderful and diverse nature, owning one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and home to many beauty pageant winners, Venezuela has a proud history. Unfortunately now, the heartbeat of this country pulses with a very sad story, running unseen and untold, just beneath the portrayed glossy surface.

I was hesitant to write about my perception of Venezuela, because I don’t want to add more pain, misery and grief to the existing mountain. Yet, my fears for the people and my friends here, and the need to tell other people what it’s really like, meant I had to be honest. I couldn’t deceive them like their own government does – I had to tell the truth about their country as seen by an outsider. Voicing these concerns to my friends, and their friends, they all said that it was painful to see how I saw their life, and to know that it is so true. 

“..It just hits really deep. That’s not kind of things you want to people to think about the country where you live, about the society where you have to survive, about the kind of life you’re living … It’s so true and so painful. .. It’s just so painful to know it’s true.”

Only when you look beneath the surface veneer of Venezuela, do you observe the deep divides and dysfunction. The surface impression is deceiving. The government does a thorough job of trying to portray a ‘Venezuela is doing great’ impression to the rest of the world, and they work hard to convince the people that all the problems in the country are to blame on external factors and other countries. In either case, it is not so. Venezuela is not doing great, the country is in ruins. The economic situation is critical, the political situation is disgusting, and the social situation is horrendous.

Many people warned me that Venezuela was dangerous, and some people told me not to go, which of course, with my stubbornness, made me more determined to visit and learn for myself what it was like. My first visit did not reveal the dire truths, and I made so many absolutely wonderful friends that I chose to return to the country for my 35th birthday. I wanted to spend my special day with people I felt comfortable and at home with, people I loved, and people who I would remember for many years to come. It was only after I spoke about my own experience of an attempted armed robbery on Margarita Island that my friends began opening up and speaking about their own experiences. I was horrified.

Every single one of my friends in Venezuela, and every one of their friends here, has at least two or three or more personal stories about when they’ve been robbed by assailants threatening to stab them with knives, or having guns pointed at their faces, or pushed against the backs of their heads while the thieves demand all their phones, money, jewellery, clothes and shoes. And everyone knows someone who has been beaten, seriously injured and often killed in the course of a robbery.

It is considered ‘normal’ to be robbed in Venezuela, and if you’re not killed, you’re simply considered lucky. I’ve realised that no one talks about their stories because they are already swamped by too many of their own traumatic experiences. In the last three days alone, four of my friends friends were robbed. Often that’s all that is said, and usually it’s only mentioned to tell people they will soon have a new phone number. No one asks any questions. No one wants to tell their story or hear the recriminations of worried family members, the parents and grandparents who are so fearful they lock themselves in their houses most days and nights, living in a self imposed prison because they know the authorities will not do anything to help them.

Young people, in their 20s and 30s, refuse to lock themselves in their homes – they want a life. A life that includes going to work or to university, taking the bus and walking in the street, and unfortunately, that’s where these robberies occur. People have become so numb to everything that happens here that often robberies occur in broad daylight, with other people nearby, but no one notices what is going on. As Roberto, a 21 year old Venezuelan student said:

When you hear about another robbery that went bad, it’s like, ‘Oh, someone got killed … what’s for lunch?’ It has become so regular that people get killed and you don’t care any more.”

Life in Venezuela is not really living. It is simply an existence, where people are desperately trying to survive. Most Venezuelans wake up every day knowing that it really might be their last. The fear, anxiety, stress, depravity and harsh reality that people have come to accept as ‘normal’, is actually so far from ‘normal’ that I’m still struggling to believe it after two months here.

Venezuela feels to me like a combination of the Nazi occupation, where whole families of Jews would disappear at night and you didn’t know if they’d been captured and killed, or if they’d escaped; crossed with war time rations in England where you line up all day to receive your basic food rations; crossed with the Bronx in New York where young guys rob and kill everyone unlucky enough to cross their path.

It breaks my heart to watch my friends realise how far their beloved country has disintegrated, and how it continues to shatter all around them. “People have gotten accustomed to how it is here” Carlos, a 22 year old Venezuelan activist said. “The government control where, when, and how you buy food here” said Joel, a 27 year old Venezuelan student and activist. “They control all our services – the water, electricity, gas and internet, and they often cut whatever service they want, whenever they want. If you complain, they say you’re starting to revolt and you can suffer at the hands of the authorities.”

I returned to Venezuela to celebrate my 35th birthday with my friends and we spent my birthday in an all too common ‘food line’. The final number of your identity card dictates the one day in the week you are allowed to line up to enter a supermarket to buy the scarce, and heavily regulated, government subsidised essential items. Arriving outside the supermarket at 2am, we put our names on the list, receiving positions 41, 42 and 43. My friends were happy with those positions, because there were likely to be 500 or more people try to buy their food rations that day. When the supermarket opened we could enter with the first 50 people, which meant we would only spend about 7 hours in line, and not 12 or 18 hours lining up in the sun like the people who arrived after us would do.

Lines outside the supermarket
Lines outside the supermarket

People arrived in droves, and the line extended beyond where I could see. We alternately sat on the footpath and stood leaning against the buildings, the line of those over 65 years of age who would get special preference to enter the supermarket, and those of us in the non preferential line. Everyone speculated on the possibility of items that might be available, and the hushed whisper that toilet paper might be in stock spread quickly, and raised the level of expectation in the crowd.

There had not been any toilet paper for more than a month, just like there hadn’t been rice, sugar, butter or the traditional black beans. We waited in the hope there might be all those products plus the basic necessities of powdered milk, corn and wheat flour, pasta, mayonnaise, beans, chicken and meats, coffee, cooking oil and household cleaning products available. The parents in the line carried their children’s birth certificates to prove they needed baby nappies (diapers) and baby formula – and hoped they were available.

At about 8am the supermarket official collected everyone’s identity cards, and my passport which I was not happy to hand over – but I knew if I refused he would simply tell me I could leave the line – and he disappeared back into the supermarket. Half an hour later we were in the first group of 50 people from each of the two lines to march to the supermarket. Halted in front of the entrance, we waited for the preferential line to enter first, and then we were allowed to reclaim our ID cards and my passport and enter the supermarket.

Aisles of milk inside the government supermarket
Aisles of milk inside the government supermarket

Similar to a large warehouse, the government run supermarket was chaotic as people raced around, grabbing their allocation of items before scrambling to make yet another long line to pay at the checkouts. Security guards checked how many items you had in your basket, and removed excess items. We were left with 7 items each, including one kilogram bag of powdered milk. There were 12 bands of powdered milk across four aisles – the only item to have a choice of brands available – yet we were allowed only 1kg each. A riot almost broke out when someone heard the word for ‘butter’, with the security guards shouting for people to keep quiet and stay in their lines, but after all that, no butter was seen.

Joel, 27, said, “There are lines everywhere. It’s crazy because you don’t have a choice. You make a line because you have to, you need the products. Or you can buy from the Bachaqueros, the people who make a business out of lining up to get regulated products and then sell them for five times the price in the supermarket. It’s insane. We don’t have the money to buy from the Bachaqueros, but we also don’t have the time to make a line all day. We have to work, and study, and some people have families to take care of.”

Eventually we reached the checkout and the cashier asked for my ID card. I gave him my passport, and he entered my number in the computer. Denied. I was not allowed to buy anything because I was not registered in their system. A second check of my passport number confirmed the same – I could not buy anything in that supermarket because the government didn’t recognise my passport number. I apologised to my friends, as I wanted to buy the things for them, and stood aside to let them buy their items.

Three peoples product allocations..
Three peoples product allocations..

As we left the supermarket we glanced around suspiciously, ensuring no one was following us or eyeing off our precious goods. “You can get robbed and killed for a bag of powdered milk” Roberto, 21, told me. “People are desperate, they will do anything for the products that the government restricts. You have to be careful that no one rides close to you on a motorbike, or they will rob your bags. And if you try and resist, they might kill you too.” Sadly, that’s the daily reality for most Venezuelans, those who are not connected to the government and don’t receive special privileges.

With their weekly allowance of products, my friends will try to stretch them out to last, and they will eat two meals per day if they’re lucky. I brought some US dollars with me, and after changing them on the black market, I can provide some financial relief while I am here. However, with all the government restrictions on foreign currencies, I have no way of getting more money to my friends once I’m out of the country – or even once I’m out of the US dollars I bought with me.

Aside from the food restrictions, hygiene, medicine and feminine sanitary products are next to impossible to find. Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, razors, creams, moisturisers, powdered soap for washing clothes and toilet paper are rare to find and prohibitively expensive if you do find them; pain killers, contraceptive pills, folic acid, Vitamin B, epileptic medicines, insulin and mosquito repellent, and all female sanitary products are simply not available.

Not only does the government control the goods and services in Venezuela, the general population do not trust the government or the authorities to protect them.

Our security and safety is always at risk here – if you get robbed the police don’t do anything, the army officers won’t do anything. no one will do anything. Some people are more afraid of the police and the army because the robbers will take your stuff, but the authorities might beat you up and take you to jail.” – Joel, 27

Driving at night time is especially dangerous in Venezuela, so you ignore all the road rules, you drive fast and you speed through traffic lights – because stopping at a red light means risking your life by becoming a stationary target for robberies, kidnappings and car-jackings.

Public transport and especially the buses are dangerous in Venezuela. Many people are robbed on public buses with other people nearby, and long distance buses are often targeted by thieves. Organised groups will ambush buses, then storm onto the bus and rob everyone on board.

Walking in the street is dangerous in Venezuela. People are regularly shot, stabbed and killed just for a mobile phone. Sometimes people are even seriously injured or killed for NOT having a phone or money for the thieves to steal.

Staying in your house or business is dangerous in Venezuela. The constant dull buzz and chirping pulse of the electric wires atop the already high walls of homes and businesses is such a common and accepted noise the people say it’s birds or frogs or grasshoppers. It’s not. It’s the distinct and unmistakable sound of an electric fence to keep unwanted persons out of their properties.

The government has refused to release any official statistics since 2004 so accurate figures are not known. Information and statistics on crime, murders, health, and education are all estimates by Non Government Organisations. Venezuela and the capital city of Caracas have ranked as the second most dangerous country and city in the world (LINKS) after Honduras and above Syria. Estimates for the last four years suggest at least 24,000 people are murdered each year in Venezuela. 24,000 people each year is approximately 65 people per day who lose their lives because of rising and uncontrollable violence and crime. 65 people murdered per day is approximately five people every two hours, or more than one person every 30 minutes who loses their life just because they live in Venezuela.

Some communities are fighting back though, with deadly consequences. In 25 cases since January 2015, people who have caught a thief in the act, fought back with members of their community, attacking and injuring the thief. In August alone, six men died at the hands of these community lynching mobs. Lawlessness is reigning. Everyone knows there are no consequences or punishments if you’re caught committing a crime, so regular people are taking the law into their own hands, and in turn, committing crimes they probably would never have dreamt of.

With an estimated 20% of the police force corrupt and unable to be trusted, and a government only concerned with lining their pockets at the expense of their citizens lives, what are people expected to do, to survive in Venezuela?

When asked what he thinks his life will be like in the next few years, Jhan, a 23 year old student replied, “Things are only going to get worse. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. There are always changes, new laws introduced every day, and we have no way of knowing about them until we are in trouble for something we didn’t know about.”

Joel, 27, said “They [the government] took our dreams away. We are always trying not to get killed, and our moods are generally numb. I am glad my friends who can leave just do it, and do not have farewell parties. I couldn’t deal with that. You grow paranoid, and you’re conditioned to expect the worst of everyone. The bad vibes of everyone end up crushing your individual dreams. You either line up or find a way to leave – there’s no other choice.”


Further Reading:

http://panampost.com/sabrina-martin/2015/07/03/ngos-denounce-venezuelas-human-rights-abuses-before-un-committee/ (In English)

https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/07/02/i-escaped-veneuzela-for-the-u-s-heres-my-story/ (In English)

http://www.efectococuyo.com/efecto-cocuyo/al-menos-23-linchamientos-a-delincuentes-se-han-registrado-en-el-pais-en-lo-que-va-de-2015 (en español)

http://www.maduradas.com/tag/linchamientos-en-venezuela/ (***WARNING: Very Graphic Images on this site – en español)

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