Failing Bolívar

Make Venezuela Great Again?

Venezuela is bleeding. Grocery stores have no food. Drug stores have no medicine. Protesters and soldiers are clashing, often fatally. Dissidents are in jail. Folks wait in line for hours to buy bread. Neighborhood groups have to physically stand guard night and day over staples like rice and powdered milk in order to thwart looters.

So what, you may ask. Poor people are poor, what else is new? I may take issue with your fatalistic attitude, but that’s a topic for another day. Even cynics should care about this, for two reasons. First, it’s happening because of an autocratic populist nationalist government, something that has recently become very relevant to those of us in the United States. Second, you’re wrong about these people being poor. These are would-be middle class professionals who went to private high school. And I know, because I was there in school with them.

Two decades ago, when I was sixteen, I lived in Valencia, Venezuela for nearly a year as an AFS exchange student. Public schools were notoriously bad, so everyone sent their kids elsewhere if they could. My host parents generously paid for me to attend the same school as their sons. There I met an affable cadre of classmates: warm, fun-loving, and remarkably bright. Overall I had a blast, but I did face plenty of culture shock. Venezuelan teens danced merengue, played indoor soccer, and kissed the air cheek-to-cheek to say goodbye. I was familiar with Mexican cuisine, but that was nothing like the arepas, empanadas, and hallacas I encountered. Every morning all the students lined up in our uniforms and sang the national anthem about a brave people throwing off the yoke. The nation was obsessed with its founding father Simón Bolívar even more than my country was with George Washington, probably because there were few other prominent home-grown heroes competing for attention. The revolution Bolívar led from Caracas against Spain represented many things in the zeitgeist: freedom from tyranny, hope for the downtrodden, and pan-American unity. I was a long way from the 4th of July parades of my small Wisconsin hometown. The strangeness of everything was hard, and I often felt lonely. But that was no fault of the venezolanos, who bent over backwards to be welcoming.

Even my youthful eyes could see that the country had problems. Laborers I passed on the dirty streets clearly lived in poverty. I was frequently warned about crime, and most houses and buildings had barred windows, gates, and often private armed guards. Services like running water and the post office were unreliable. Protesters lit bonfires in abandoned cars. The previous president had been an embezzler. The nation had loads of oil wealth, but it was not well distributed. This is not to say that anyone was unhappy. Even in the face of hardship, venezolanos are tenaciously cheerful. But everyone openly acknowledged that the country was subdesarrollado – not First World yet.

One of my first days there, I had a chance to meet a local celebrity. Hugo Chávez was an activist best known for a failed coup against the aforementioned presidente corrupto. He was speaking at the university where my host dad taught. I was given a literal front-row seat an arm’s length away from the famous socialist, who preached for three hours in a language I still barely understood. I was dressed very inappropriately in sweat pants, and the hard wooden chair got pretty uncomfortable after a while. But what a voice. What passion. And what palpable infatuation among the liberal campus crowd.

Five years later, I returned to Venezuela as a field ecology research tech. Chávez was now on television every day, often for hours. He was the president. Everyone either loved or hated him. To his fans, he was eliminating poverty and feeding the hungry. Flaws in the system were not his fault; even oil slicks on the road were blamed on anti-Chavistas trying to discredit him. To his detractors, he was a buffoon who wasted his time on rhetoric and showy but misguided social programs. But none of this was new. Venezuela was accustomed to poorly functioning governments, and this was just one more guy trying to bring order to a sprawling mess. I thought the pro-Chávez crowd was a little over-the-top in their zeal, but I tended to be on their side. After all, my own country was no better, having just elected a simpleton who was looking to start a pointless war in Iraq. Chávez was unorthodox, but I found it easy to forgive peccadilloes like dominating the airwaves at the expense of the free press. His intentions were noble. And things were already so messed up anyway. It’s not like they were going to get worse.

Fifteen years after that, things are definitely worse. Chávez is dead. His hand-picked successor is an ineffectual leader, struggling to maintain control of the country and disregarding the humanitarian goals of Chavismo in the process. Regulations on food prices proved to be particularly disastrous. Farms, factories, and stores were losing money on producing and supplying food, so they simply stopped doing it. Everything spiraled out of control from there. Now my former classmates tell me they are targets of raids and deprived of essentials in a manner reminiscent of a country at war. The problem is political, and the solution isn’t obvious. It looks like the current government can’t possible hold on to power much longer. But given the country’s history of ineptly-run bureaucracy, it’s hard to be optimistic for what will replace it.

Here in the U.S. we have our own political crisis, although so far it’s nothing like Venezuela. It’s still very challenging for me to understand the mentality of a Trump supporter. But Chávez helps. It was easy for progressives to let Chávez melt our hearts. I can see how quickly one can get caught up in the excitement of an anti-establishment iconoclast. To be clear, Chávez was not merely the left-wing version of Trump. Chávez was intelligent, compassionate, and principled. But he made his revolution too much about himself. He fostered a culture of presidential hegemony. And he failed to plan beyond his own incumbency. His supporters let him get away with mistakes because they only ever heard his version of the story. Venezuela thus became extremely politically polarized. The glimmer of hope now is that both sides will unite in their frustration against the current government. If any of this sounds familiar, well, maybe there are lessons here for us all.

Foreigners like myself feel the urge to help. Unfortunately, getting food and medicine into the hands of those who need them is not so straightforward. My mother couldn’t reliably send me cookies even before the system imploded. Blanket efforts to support the political opposition also should be treated with caution, since not all factions have democratic goals at heart. And the last thing Venezuela needs is “help” in the form of U.S. military intervention. One thing Chávez got right is that Bush-style World Police only leads to more chaos. The most important thing you can do is remind other non-Venezuelans about what is happening. For donations, there are GoFundMe sites here and here, though I cannot vouch for their legitimacy. Alternatively, Doctors Without Borders is a trustworthy organization that provides medical care to regions of unrest around the world, including Latin America.

In the end, I hope we can just remember that we’re all in this together. The problems of Venezuela and the U.S.A. are not unrelated. We can learn from each other’s experiences. We can help each other. Long-term fixes won’t be quick, and will require everyone coming together in open dialogue: left and right, gringo and criollo, haves and have-nots. Today the ideals symbolized by Bolívar have new meaning. My school didn’t sing the last verse of the Venezuelan national anthem very often, but maybe we should have:

All of America exists as one nation. And if despotism raises it voice, follow the example of Caracas.

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