COÑO TU MADRE CHAVEZ!—I swore with frustration every time I saw Hugo Chavez's face pop up on my TV throughout my childhood. He always interrupted when I watched Dragon Ball Z, my favorite cartoon, after school. Mandatory joint broadcasts called cadenas, were Chavez's favorite way to rant to Venezuelans everyday.
Chavez addressed Venezuelans collectively as el pueblo, the town, and rambled about pseudo-philosophical musings and his Bolivarian Revolution, named after the historical liberator of South America "Simon Bolivar." Imagine if Donald Trump interrupted the World Series or the X Factor whenever he ranted about MAGA. Welcome to my childhood! From 1999 to 2009 Venezuela averaged 195 cadenas per year.
My last memory of Venezuela is of my family fixated on a TV image of a plane on a runway late at night. The way I remember it, Chavez was escaping the country. It turns out that a coup was underway that forced Chavez to resign. I had just turned 10 years old.
Recently when I asked my mom about those days she told me that the morning of the coup we had driven from our home in Maracay to the international airport a few hours away, north of Caracas, the nation's capital, to say goodbye to our aunt's family who were emigrating to Ireland. As we drove through Caracas we saw crowds dispersed with tear gas. During the commotion, I had asked my mom: "Did you bring our passports? Can we leave with our aunt Silvia?"
We couldn't leave Venezuela that day, but on the way home from the airport, as we went through military roadblocks and heard guns bang in the distance, all my mom could think was: "We have to get out of this country." Later that evening our family sat around the TV late into the night as reports of Chavez's resignation dominated coverage of protests in Caracas.
With Chavez cast away, the next morning my friend's mom said to us while we played in our building: "Who is your new president? Repeat after me: "CAR-MO-NA."
It was short-lived: within two days the military and the Chavistas revolted, the new president Carmona was arrested, and Chavez returned. Later, when we prayed at church about the resurrection of Christ, my brother and I jokingly hummed along: "Chavez se fue, celebramos, Chavez regreso," Chavez left, we celebrated, Chavez returned.
Within two months we followed our aunt to Ireland but eventually settled back in Canada. I haven't set foot in Venezuela since.
I read Rory Caroll's book, "Comandante: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela," while I was in Colombia writing about Venezuelan migrants. I always felt awkward, like I was pseudo-Venezuelan—I was born and partially raised there, but if you ever spoke to me you'd think I was a gringo traveler with an American college student accent. When I spoke Spanish throughout my trip, people either thought I sounded weird or recognized a faint Venezuelan accent.
Since I barely remembered any Venezuelan history, I wanted to read an objective account of Venezuela under Chavez, to understand the man and the culture behind the polarized country I left 16 years ago.
In the prologue, Carroll writes about how the famous South American author Gabriel García Márquez accompanied Chavez on a trip to Cuba to write a profile of the newly elected leader in 1999. At the end of the trip García Márquez wondered:
"While he sauntered off with his bodyguards of decorated officers and close friends, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given the opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot."
Garcia Marquez predicted the theme that would polarize Venezuela ever since: part of the country sees Chavez as a hero, the only Venezuelan President who helped improve the lives of the working class and the poor; the other half sees him as a despot, an illusionist who manipulated Venezuelans to consolidate power towards a dictatorship.
My interpretation is that Chavez's socialist project began with good intentions to revolutionize Venezuelan society and redistribute wealth to the poor, but ultimately history will judge Chavez as a man who became addicted to power and adulation, who allowed his henchmen to pillage the nation's wealth worse than the oligarchs he vehemently vilified before him.
Chavez grew up among the poorest Venezuelans: this cultivated his populism and attraction to socialism. Whether you loved or hated him, its hard to deny his genuine empathy for generations of people who couldn't escape life in places like the barrios, the slums, that surround major cities in South America like Caracas. His socialist revolution provided things most Venezuelans couldn't access: free university education and healthcare, heavily subsidized foods, cars, houses, and appliances like washers and dryers, plus cushy government jobs within the bureaucracy. The revolution allowed for upward mobility, in a society known to keep the haves and have-nots separate.
Yes this sounds amazing, the socialist dream seemed real, but all the while a new social class emerged from the convergence of the oil state elite, military generals, bureaucrats, and politicians who served the revolution, referred to as Boligarchs, a term which combined Bolivar, the historical liberator, with the oligarchs Chavez despised.
Carroll writes that "Chavez allowed the boligarchs to make money -- as long as they served him." Despite constantly railing against capitalists and expropriating private business, which he did live on television, he allowed those who served him to become unimaginably rich. In the book, Carroll interviews a fashion designer who dressed the vain boligarchs and their wives. He said:
"Is it incongruous to combine high fashion with socialist revolution? You have to put inverted commas around those last two words, amigo. What we are is an oil state with a new elite. And believe me, they’re having fun. Flights are full, nightclubs are full, restaurants are full.”
As for the social programs, subsidies, and giveaways the revolution invested in, they were strategically used to ensure votes, as Caroll writes:
"The comandante’s compulsion to 'pound the opposition into dust' in every election—there was a vote almost every year—unleashed a populist spiral of subsidies, giveaways, and stunts, a sugar diet that left the nation flabby, enfeebled, and import addicted. To break the cycle meant tough decisions and losing face and votes, at least in the short term, and this was unacceptable."
Fast forward to 2017. Chavez died in 2013 and Venezuela suffered an economic crisis when oil prices plummeted and the country ran out of money. Now Venezuela suffers from hyper-inflation, shortages of consumer goods, food and medicine, unlivable crime and murder rates, systemic corruption, and a diaspora of Venezuelans throughout the world seeking a better life.
Venezuelans spend hours each day lined up for food, or searching stores throughout the city for food to become available. When I look at photos on Facebook of friends in Venezuela, most look much thinner than I remember. A study claims Venezuelans lost an average of 19 pounds in the last year and eat less than two meals a day.
Venezuela went from an authoritarian democracy, which Carroll describes as: "a hybrid system of personality cult and one-man rule, that permitted opposition parties, free speech, and free, not entirely fair elections," to a borderline dictatorship, as Maduro and his party continue to consolidate power through the creation of a Constituent Assembly, composed of mostly government supporters, who are passing laws at a Chavez like rate, while the opposition lead National Assembly cries dictatorship, as the newly created assembly usurps its authority to pass legislation.
Venezuela just passed a law "against hate, for peaceful coexistence and tolerance," that according to Aljazeera "prohibits anyone from sharing content that promotes fascism, intolerance or hate... on social media or digital platforms." An infraction could result in up to 20 years in prison. If you're unfamiliar with Venezuelan media, anyone who speaks against the government is commonly labeled a fascist.
Even if the opposition won control of the country—some think they are in cahoots with the government—most economists predict it would take a decade or more for Venezuela to recover and to invite international businesses back. Meanwhile, Venezuelans continue to flee the country at an unprecedented rate, while they wait to return home when basic needs and security are met, as the country is plagued by insecurity, murder, and starvation. It's funny because Venezuela used to be a country of immigrants from all over the world, and Colombians and other South Americans fled there when their own countries dealt with political chaos and insecurity.
When my cousin and I arrived in Bogota in January, it took him a while to feel safe walking around at night. In Venezuela, you'll be mugged and shot for your smartphone or Nike shoes.
I remember an episode of Daily Planet said Venezuela in the 1990's was the happiest country on Earth because of its vibrant people and beautiful landscapes, while a study as recent as 2012 at Columbia University claimed Venezuela was the happiest country in South America. The irony does no justice to the plight of Venezuelans today, who lost everything since the glory days, and face struggles worse than before Chavez inherited the booming oil state.
My cousins say Venezuelans aren't used to working so hard anymore for basic needs, because they're used to the government paying for everything. So when they leave the country, and continue to live in poverty as they try to start a new life, the burden of survival can be unbearable, and they often return to Venezuela within a few months.
A few weeks ago my friend and I witnessed an accident at work that traumatized me for a few days. I had to leave work immediately when it happened, but while my friend seemed affected, he managed to stay composed as we dealt with customers. He later told me that's the kind of shock he learned to live with in Venezuela everyday, especially since the crisis began.
What he said a few days later stuck with me: "Chamo, (dude) if things were different back home, if things went back to normal, I would one hundred percent rather live in Venezuela than here [in Canada]. The energy of people fucking around and laughing on the streets is just different. We spent every weekend at the beach. It was paradise. Friends and family get together much more frequently to hang out than in Canada."
It reminded me of childhood memories of family gatherings. Children ran around and played games, while the adults sat around shooting the shit and danced salsa. He's right, the energy was different, life felt looser and louder than the conservative culture in Canada. Communities felt closer and people were more social. Venezuelans tend to captivate the people around them with jokes and rants about life. Just like Chavez did. I do the same now, people wonder why I'm so loud.
If you want to understand what happened in Venezuela read Rory Carroll's book. I thought it was a fair assessment of Chavez's Venezuela.