by Lisa Sullivan
Barquisimeto, Venezuela February 28, 2014
I was in Guatemala when my computer flooded with news that Venezuela – my home for almost three decades – was apparently on the brink of civil war. Messages poured into my inbox calling to “pray for Venezuela“.
I had just returned from the Mayan Ixil community of Cocop to meet with survivors of a massacre there. The 58 victims of Cocop were among 1700 Ixils murdered by the army, and among 200,000 victims of Guatemala’s civil war. In the town’s small cemetery, Jacinto said I’d like to introduce you to my parents. His hand swept to two tombs. As he shared the story of how the army gunned down nine family members, his body trembled and tears fell. He was thirteen at the time. I’m so sorry, he apologized for his tears, it still hurts so much.
Back at the hotel, I turned on my computer to read that two Venezuelan students and a government supporter had been gunned down at a demonstration in Caracas. There were “only” three victims (at that point, more were to come). Not 200,000. But, having just embraced Jacinto’s sobbing body thirty years after his parents’ massacre, I knew that the pain of one loss is enough to rip apart your world forever. For the families of the Venezuelan victims, it makes no difference if their loved one shared their fate with two or with 199,999 others. Their pain is just as real, as should be our solidarity.
But, still, I couldn’t help but wonder. Where was all that same heart-felt international out pour of concern when 200,000 people were being massacred in Guatemala? What international media was inviting the world to pray for Guatemala? Was the world’s silence due to the fact that the victims were indigenous? Was it because we were the ones training the killers? Can lack of twitter and internet in those years really explain all that media silence, so different from today’s media’s cry to pray for Venezuela?
I delved into news about Venezuela on my computer. Every article seemed to reshuffle the same dozen words or so: chaos, civil war, 54% inflation, crime, exit Maduro, government responsibility, peaceful students, Lopez, Harvard business graduate, toilet paper. Soon it became clear that the call to pray for Venezuela was code for a call for regime change.
Most news sources referred to social media messages and images as their source. Interestingly, some blasted photos showed “Caraquenos” wearing turtle necks and jackets and sweaters, where the average temperature this time of year is about 80 degrees. Others showed rather Asian faces among chaos. Woops, it turns out those images are of repression in Chile and an earthquake in Japan. But still, pray for Venezuela!
The media hype grew daily and my inbox flooded with questions of what was happening in my adopted country. I braced for my return on February 24th, wondering if even the flight would be cancelled.
Arriving in the Caracas airport Monday morning I found – to my great surprise – a stunningly normal Caracas. Buses, metro, pedestrians, traffic all moved at their normal hectic pace. Streets were filled with school children and office workers; shops,banks and restaurants were open and bustling. After hours of traversing various zones of the city with errands and seeing absolutely nothing amiss, I opened my email in the evening to messages such as: Lisa, how are you getting by? We’ve heard that the roads in Caracas are completely blocked. Maybe my plane had delivered me to a twilight zone Venezuela.
The next day I continued on to my home city of Barquisimeto. Ditto the scenes in Caracas, absolutely nothing amiss. I turned to the tv to see if the national picture was more bleak. The government was hosting a peace conference, being shown on all stations.
I sat transfixed for four hours as President Maduro listened to the Papal Nuncio, leaders from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Islamic faiths; the president of the Chamber of Commerce and the owner of Venezuela’s biggest industry – Polar, leaders of opposition parties, mayors on both sides of the political divide, media moguls and opposition journalists. All shared from the heart their concerns about the economy and crime and their desire to see Venezuela not fall to chaos. One by one they expressed disdain for the violent road blocks and affirmed Venezuela’s constitution. Maduro took notes and committed to many of their concrete suggestions. I went to bed hopeful that such diverse political sectors could dialogue and outline steps for change.
But, the titles from international reports the next morning screamed: Failure of dialogue in Venezuela! In spite of an impressive collection of politically diverse leaders, the darlings of the international mainstream media did not show up at the conference. Then, I began to realize this: the media wants Venezuela to look like it’s falling apart. They are doing everything they can to portray that image.
Nostalgia sweeps over me. Is this February 2014 or April 2002? Déja vu: opposition protests, government supporters defending public institutions, shots to the head, dead on both sides, media images “proving” government responsibility, U.S. questions the government’s legitimacy. Then……….a coup
Even the two current media darlings: Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado were key players in 2002, signing the coup degree and participating in a violent round up of government leaders. Couldn’t the opposition have least changed the cast this time?
One thing repeated again and again at the peace conference was: we are not Colombia. While our neighbor to the west has lost tens of thousands of citizens to political violence in recent decades, Venezuela has achieved enormous social change, peacefully, via the ballot box. It is one of Latin America’s nations with the smallest legacy of political violence.
The media is correct to report that Venezuela’s inflation is much too high. But, do they report this: Statistically, Venezuela is the most economically equal society in all of Latin America. Statistically, it has blasted poverty to pieces more than any other country in the hemisphere. That is the news that the international media never reports. I just turned on my computer this morning to a Bloomberg report,and found commentators lamenting “all that poverty”. “People are standing in line for bread”. “Poor Venezuela”. As solid proof, one commenator mentioned that a few years ago he had a Venezuelan graduate student whose doctor parents could not put up with all that poverty and had to move to Miami.
Do these commentators ever wonder why the road blocks they fixated on are only found in the wealthier areas of the country? Why are the people from the populous barrios not streaming down to join them, but instead, making plans for the beach this Carnaval weekend? Here are some clues, obtained not from 30 words lifted from other articles, but from 30 years lived in this land.
When I built my home in a rural area outside Sanare 17 years ago, my neighbors were barely eking out a subsistence, digging for potatoes and herding goats and sheep. The only school in town was an elementary school, and three days of five the teachers didn’t show up. People lived with 2, 3, 4 generations in one small mud house. None had a vehicle more modern than a horse. If you got sick, you had to walk 8 miles to town and get in line at 3 am to maybe be seen the next day at the hospital.
Today, that same community has an elementary and secondary school, and a free university that functions on the weekends. Every evening it has adult classes. I have neighbors who are now doctors, lawyers and teachers. Their younger siblings see absolutely zero barriers to being whatever they desire in life. There are 18 new homes in my enclave, double the amount before, with the approximately the same population. The homes were built by the community council, and have indoor bathrooms and tile roofs and ceramic kitchens, never dreamed of before. Ever since my clunker of a jeep broke down it is my compadre who gives me rides in his. A friend who came from the states to visit was surprised to find neighbors pleasantly plump. For every year of the revolution, she said, I think that everyone has gained a kilo.
Oh, and if you are sick, you can get free medical attention a half a mile down the road, at a clinic staffed by Cuban doctors and Venezuelan medical students from my community. But, I shouldn’t go there, that’s a sore spot for those from the US reading this.
These same stories could be told a thousand times, ten thousand times in Venezuela. If only journalists would actually come to Venezuela and leave their 5-stay hotels, maybe they would figure that out and solve the incredible mystery as to why this political project has been re-elected over 14 years and more than a dozen elections, in what Jimmy Carter calls the best electoral system in the world.
I am, however, the first to say that Venezuela is not a perfect country. I tell the many visitors who I receive here that this is an experiment in a world that desperately needs experiments. What doesn’t work, we try to fix or throw out.
And, something definitely need to be fixed. Crime is one. Even though I have experienced far worse situations of insecurity and violence in Central America, Venezuela needs to confront this situation head-on. I actually think that President Maduro is doing a much better job than Chavez at this. He has taken concrete steps such as a disarmament program, a national youth program to bring sports and culture massively to the barrios, and more. Actually, crime has been falling in recent years – way too slowly albeit. I have been the one here, burying young people from the barrio where I work, and several years ago, this tragedy reached its peak. It must come down to zero, and it is correct to demand more attention from the government on this issue.
Another thing that must change is the shortages of basic good. But be careful in loosely pointing fingers. Indeed, it is the government’s fault, but also it’s private industry’s fault and it’s also my fault.
Check out my pantry. Like most of my friends, it has a few more quantities of things than needed. In my case: 20 kilos of corn flour, 10 large packages of toilet paper, and 5 kilos of coffee. Sometimes my companero calls to say he’ll be late, he’s in a line. What for I ask? Not sure, he responds, but probably something essential. As I open the door for him to bring in the 4 liters of oil I see my neighbor balancing a bag stuffed with sacks of sugar.
Sugar and oil aside, the issue at hand is that people had been killed in Venezuela because of political violence in the past two weeks. The numbers are between 10 and 50, depending on if it “counted” to be a victim if you died because you couldn’t make it through a road block to the hospital. There lies blame for the deaths on both sides. Government security forces firing into the crowd, protesters setting national guard on fire with molotov cocktails, razor wire placed by protesters to protect their blockage decapitating unsuspecting motorcyclist, and so on and so forth.
That must stop and all of us in Venezuela must contribute. The government should continue to detain and investigate security forces who have responded with violence. Radical forces of the opposition must take down road blocks that create havoc for their own neighbors. And, the international media should be called out for its efforts to promote and misrepresent the current reality in Venezuela. Surprisingly, even the business leaders at the peace conference reiterated: we can solve this. We don’t need outside intervention to so do. My guess is that they would rather do business in this socialist nation where people eat and buy much more than they did in the decades of the neo-liberal economic model.
My recent trip to Guatemala was only the most recent of visits to 18 Latin American countries in the past six years. I have met with hundreds of family members of the dead, disappeared, tortured and massacred, most at the hands of government forces, many of them trained and financed by the United States. Their tears could fill oceans. I have hugged too many Jacintos.
But, Venezuela is unique among them. Why? Because Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves. Venezuela is a prize for whoever’s greedy hands reach here, with the justification of regime change, crisis, humanitarian aid. But Venezuela is also a prize to me because of its orange-flowering bucare trees, a prize to my companero because of its Afro-Venezuelan tambores, a prize to my children because they grew up under its mango trees eating its arepas and avocados, a prize to my neighbors because they begin every morning with coffee grown by their own hands. Venezuela is a prize to each and every Venezuelan.
Yes, pray for Venezuela. Pray that there will be no more bloodshed. Pray that the people of Venezuela may continue their peaceful political tradition of finding solutions to real problems and differences. Pray (and act) that they be allowed to continue to determine their own destiny. Pray that Venezuela may remain a sovereign nation.