Chronicles of a Worried Citizen: A Country that Bears the Scars of Uncertainty
Another story by Aglaia Berlutti, writing once more about day-to-day life in Venezuela as the economy there is in the midst of collapse. I translated an earlier piece she wrote back in June. As before, any links are my own, and are used only to provide context or background information.
The English-speaking world has its eyes focused on our own political upheaval (be it Brexit or the U.S. presidential election), and the associated questions of who we are and where we want to go. But it’s important that we not lose sight of the real consequences of failed demagoguery. In spite of all that’s going on in my own country, I couldn’t help but be moved even more by what’s happening there. It could happen here, too, and we forget this at our peril. Rather than thinking about whom we should be throwing out, maybe we could be thinking about how we can (to borrow the Spanish phrasing) throw them a hand?
A few days ago, one of my neighbors warned me that the street that goes by my building, and even a couple beyond, are home to “food bandits.” She said this when we bumped into each other leaving one of the supermarkets in the area. We both were carrying a couple small bags with some almost accidental purchases.
“Yes, my dear. They’re groups of thieves that’ll rip the bags right off of your arms. Be careful. Little kids dying of hunger that aren’t even 15 that will shoot you to take what you have.”
She looked around with a worried expression, as if the hypothetical group of assailants was on the verge of appearing due to merely being mentioned. I didn’t know what to say to that. Of course, I live in Caracas: violence is a daily thing, it’s everywhere. It’s very close. A daily fact that you have to learn to deal with in order to survive in the midst of urban hostility. I know very well that food has become one more target in the middle of the social debacle that we’re suffering. I’ve read about attacks and assaults to grab shopping bags, little bits of the vanishing articles of necessity. With a shiver of fear, I quicken my pace. My neighbor does too, looking over her shoulder with a furtive air.
“You never know what to be afraid of,” she continues. “Think about it, and now keep an eye out because they can steal your food.”
She’s right, and she’s touching on a difficult think to assimilate. An idea that reflects the critical situation that Venezuela is going through, but also something more subtle and painful that I still don’t know how to identify. While I hold on more tightly to the two bags hung on my arms, I think that I could never have imagined that I would fear being attacked in the middle of the street simply for having bought a few basic necessities. That suddenly, food is seen as an object as ambiguous as valuable. In the Venezuela of 21st-century socialism, eating suddenly takes on another meaning. It’s no longer just a matter of nourishment as part of a general concept of prosperity, but something cruder and stranger, of very survival. The violent struggle for life, from an essential and primitive idea that when I think about it, distresses and confounds me. When have we been in a similar situation? I ask myself with my heart racing. When did the Venezuelan landscape degrade so much as to destroy the daily civility that we’ve long considered normal? I’m startled by not having an answer. By not having a clear idea of when this all started. This slow degeneration, day by day.
We go up the street, our pace rapid and a little nervous. A long, impatient line of men and women stretches out a few meters to the right, in front of a bakery with its doors closed. To the left, going up the road, a second silent crowd is waiting in front of a small store. A member of the National Guard, in uniform and with his duty weapon out in the open is watching. He goes back and forth with a slow, pompous gait from one side to the other, throwing distracted glances at the group of people that’s waiting. I wonder what he must be thinking about the waiting people, about their patience, almost harmful in the sun. If that picture of poorly-hidden misery worries him. But the soldier seems indifferent to those thoughts, or at least, I decide as much when he turns around and pulls his cell phone from a pants pocket. He turns his back to the crowd. He throws his head back and laughs loudly.
My neighbor keeps telling me about the dangers of this starving Venezuela that go unreported. It’s no longer just a matter of assaults, but also kidnappings and murders in the lines for food. Of spontaneous and desperate violence among those who wait. About violence by chance, about blind attacks. The notion of fear and desperation that seems to occupy every part of the reality in a broken country. All the stories that she tells me I’ve heard before, small urban legends of poverty. I’m astonished by the way fear repeats itself, becoming an endless echo. It’s as if the fiber that holds up a certain apparent normalcy was beginning to break, torn by daily terror.
“I don’t know which is worse: the hunger that we’re afraid will come or the terror of not knowing how this will stop,” she murmurs with a quick and worried glance. “Doesn’t it scare you? Doesn’t it upset you to think about it?”
It must be a few weeks ago, someone that I know told me about waiting more than six hours in a long line for food, and a man that was standing a few meters in front of where she was collapsed. He simply fell to the floor, his arms and legs shaking in a silent convulsion. When she made as if to help him, a woman reminded her that if “she left the line, she wouldn’t be able to come back in.” The crowd around her looked away with uncomfortable muttering. No one left their place, remaining in a type of brutal stubbornness that surprised — and terrified — my friend.
“I started yelling, asking whether they’d let someone die in order to buy a kilo of sugar,” she told me. “No one answered. No one looked at me. No one helped me to pick him up and take him to the National Guard roadblock. I didn’t go back to the line, I was too disgusted.”
She told me this with a sad, tired expression. We were in her office, looking at the quiet street that ran under the window. She pointed out a small, tidy store, almost elegant, down the street. There was a small group of people in line in front of the closed door. From afar, there’s a structure, elemental and almost sad, in the way everyone remained standing, in a type of resigned order. My friend shrugged.
“They’re the neighbors you see every day. The people that you greet every morning. Suddenly, those same people would do anything for a bag of sugar, of boiled flour, for a bottle of oil. It’s scary when you think about it.”
I remember this conversation while walking with my neighbor down the street where I’ve lived most of my life. I know from memory every street, every store, every bit of this little remnant of Caracas’ middle class. I know its sounds, its aged calm, it’s morning clamor, its tranquil afternoons. But suddenly, that landscape is impregnated with something else: with an unsettling idea about the crisis. A brutal sensation of obvious misery, which we barely notice. In the endless lines that extend out in every direction, in the armed vigilance from the military that terrorizes you with its implications. In a feeling of tension growing from worried faces that is repeated wherever you look. Suddenly, I ask myself when was the last time that I saw a group running down the street towards the nearby park or a child playing in the street, or an old couple walking around the corner that is surrounded by flowering weeds. And it scares me to think that this normalcy has been replaced by something else. A tense and harmful silence, a feeling of danger that rises up from everywhere, even if you don’t know where it comes from. What have we become? I ask myself again, with my fingers tight against the elastic surface of the bag that I carry. Who are we Venezuelans that are trying to survive all this?
One of the lines that runs along the street begins at the closed bars of a small corner store. There are people sitting on the sidewalk on little plastic chairs. Most are standing in the noonday sun, which shines heavily. Everyone has the same expression of pure resignation and weariness. Some kind of clear and honest indifference that I don’t really know how to define.
“I’ve forgotten what it was like not to have to wait in line to buy something you need,” my neighbor says in a quiet voice. “It’s frightening how much we’ve lost in so little time.”
I continue on, not knowing how to respond. A few days ago, I found a little piece I had written about three years earlier, where I complained about the disappearance of cooking oil from store shelves. What really worried me was the fact that we had, with rare speed, gotten used to a small dose of scarcity. With a naivety that I now find heartbreaking, I questioned if Venezuelans were willing to accept slow economic collapse, or better said, if we knew where this situation was heading, while it seemed constantly more complex and difficult to bear. I remember myself, going between shelves full of products, without any restrictions on buying and even then, being worried by the clear fact that the brief economic ripple we were suffering could end up becoming something much harder. Looking back, I’m startled by my innocence, the little knowledge I had about the serious economic circumstances that were beginning to announce themselves from the distance.
Of course, I couldn’t have imagined what we’re now living, I reproach myself silently. I could never have understood the real cost for Venezuelan lives of the ideological experiment from a government with an electoral mandate. That simple disorganized ignorance about what hunger could really mean — the real thing, without concealment — in the daily life of a country that, for decades, thought of itself as prosperous and rich. With that hallucinatory stubbornness of the populace, I never could’ve imagined having real fear not only of poverty, but of something more confusing and oppressive. When I look at the people forming a line to buy food, I wonder if anyone imagined this scenario of difficulty-cum-silent-anger that came of the project of a failed and Utopian country. If even in their most pessimistic predictions, someone had thought that poverty would be a means of control. That hunger would be the only tie that binds a society that is polarized and turned into stubborn ideological opponents.
It must’ve been a couple weeks ago that I read an article about a 50-year-old university professor, who was talking about hunger in our country. The hunger that she endures and that forms part of her life. The slow and unfair way that she had to confront the fact that, despite her work, her distinguished career, the well-earned years of rest that came with retirement, hunger was a part of her life. The days spent in line in order to attempt — and not always succeed — to buy what was necessary. The daily habits lost and destroyed by the crisis. The painful feeling of alienation that comes with unavoidable poverty, the slow fall in a humiliating cycle of personal and emotional decay. The article was written by one of her sons, who was seeing with horror his mother’s pain and the chaos that she has to face. That fear that we’re all sharing what will happen next, what’s beyond this hurried road to nowhere.
The article made me cry. I remember clearly the feeling that I have every morning when I wake up, worried about what I’ll eat or how I’ll buy what I need. The nervousness of remembering that I need to find a way to survive a crushing situation, enormous and invisible. This new consciousness of a needless poverty that sometimes results in situations that are impossible to define or understand. The feeling that scarcity is pushing me blindly into alienation. The persistent thought about what will happen when money is no longer enough. The simple act of eating turned into a means of control, in a tool of pressure for the powerful. In a means to keep you subjugated, a hostage of your own circumstances.
An old woman with a plastic bag full of bags of rice passes me on one side. She holds the bag against her chest, looks around her with distrust, the same worry that we all share. There is something fragile and furtive in the way she walks, in the gnarled hands that forcefully grip the bags. And I think about how mute desperation goes with us everywhere, that it overflows Venezuela, every time closer to a definitive crisis, to some kind of debacle that no conjecture can describe. I feel the fear rising in my throat, transforming me into something much harder and more bitter. What will happen going forward? What will happen in the next few months?
I say good-bye to my neighbor and continue my path towards the building where I live. In every local store that I come across, there’s a small crowd that is waiting. The same timid, tired look. The same sense of danger and threat that no one can define clearly. Fear, I repeat to myself. Fear that suffocates slowly. That closes spaces, that leaves you helpless and too tired to know how to confront it. This nameless terror of losing something so simple like a concrete conception of the future.
Suddenly, a group of kids passes me on the street. They’re all very young. The eldest couldn’t be more than sixteen, and the youngest not even ten. They’re wearing school uniforms, clean shirts and shorts that show thin legs covered in scratches. They run together, with their arms up over their heads and for a moment, a flash of terror runs through me. The “food bandits,” I think with a blind and almost ridiculous impulse. But the group doesn’t even look at me. They all run up the road and when I hear the rough sound of a truck engine, I know where they’re going. I stand there in the middle of the street, feeling overwhelmed with repulsion and regret. I’ve never felt anything like it.
The garbage truck comes around the corner with a monstrous slowness. The group of children raises their hands, signaling to the driver. The truck stops, staggering over the sidewalk. A man in an orange uniforms gets out of the cab and yells something to the chorus of young faces that looks at him from the street. They shout back, waving their hands, indicating the truck without hiding their intentions. The box on the back shakes and begins to move. It opens and a terrible smell fills the street. But the children go to it as one, balancing on the black plastic bags that stick to the largest plate of the machine.
My eyes fill with tears when one of the older boys untangles the plastic with agile fingers. This is happening, I tell myself as I see him smell the inside and then put in his hand with a quick, confident movement that I’m not able to understand. The rest of the group watches him anxiously, while the man in uniform watches everything from his truck. This is real, I tell myself with a basic innocence that makes me feel miserable. The boy shakes the bag, forces something through a hole in the plastic and then raises his hand to show a broken cardboard box, stained with grease. I recognize it immediately: it’s one of the ones used by bakeries for pastry-making. The boy opens it quickly. He looks inside it with covetous eyes and then raises a scrap of cardboard to his mouth. He licks it with a gluttonous and triumphant motion. This is real, I tell myself with my heart beating so fast that I can hardly breathe. This is really happening.
Other passers-by stop to watch as well. In silence, with a palpable and disturbing tension. We all watch the children that continue rummaging through the trash, without noticing us, chewing with shameless delight the pale, expired food, the fruit ripened to the point of rotting, the repulsive remains of bread. They’re Venezuelan children, I tell myself with a devastating grief that seems small and of little importance next to the magnitude of the tragedy that is occurring a few meters in front of me. Of the pain from the mere idea that Venezuela is this, that the country that my future depends on has fallen apart in this daily suffering, in the violence of poverty, with misery its only legacy. I feel an unbearable terror, a sensation of horror and pity that leaves me breathless, that reminds me that the country in which I was born is no longer mine, and that it’s been transformed into something else. That it has become something so cloudy as to be impossible to define.
I don’t remember turning around to return home or when I finally arrived at the false security of my little world. I’m crying and I feel hypocritical and self-indulgent for doing so. For feeling this fear, for this sensation of horrified conscience for the country that I don’t recognize, which is part of my history but is at the same time, irreconcilably, dangerous. A reflection of my worst fears and pain. I cry from pure impotence and frustration. And then from fear. Fear because I don’t know what to expect for a country that is collapsing into pieces. Fear of thinking about this painful loss that leads to an uncertain future.