In war, so they say, the first casualty is the truth. Notwithstanding a civil war, a couple of blockades and the odd messy coup Venezuela has actually being a relatively peaceful nation ever since the Liberator Simon Bolivar kicked the Spanish out some 200 plus years ago. Nevertheless, despite the (international headline defying) gentile pace of day to day life in Venezuela I did often feel like I was somehow living inside a very peculiar and particular kind of war; a propaganda war waged by column inches & Television broadcasts and where as often as not the combatants were the ordinary people of the country using the only weapons at their disposal, the words spoken from their mouths and the tweets shared from their fingertips.
Before I travelled to Venezuela the very little I knew about it intrigued me so when I arrived in neighbouring Colombia in October 2014 I loosely planned to travel to Venezuela in 3 months’ hence once my tourist visa had expired. My resolve and determination was tested during those 3 months as grave doubts were introduced into my mind. Firstly there were the news reports of fresh uprisings, I watched troubled as a middle-aged, slightly over-weight protestor fired a hand gun at opposition supporters in purportedly “recent” footage which I later discovered to actually be several years old and taken from the documentary “The Revolution Will Be Televised”. Then there was the ex-pats, nearly every Venezuelan national “in exile” that I met implored me that visiting their chaotic homeland was not a good idea even for them. I became increasingly apprehensive about travelling to Venezuela but was encouraged by Juan, a resident of Tachira state who I met in Medellin. Juan talked down the extent of the country’s problems, provided me with a list or contacts and a list of things to see and do so with my resolve strengthened I packed my bag, hid my dollars and crossed the border.
Upon entering the country I bore immediate witness to the propaganda machine in full operation, the cult of personality of the late President Hugo Chavez (and to a lesser extent his anointed if not appointed successor Nicholas Maduro) loomed large everywhere, his unmistakeable, steely gaze spray painted into murals and onto posters declaring him “The heart of the people”. Even phonecards were adorned with the portrait of the late leader.
The early bird catches the, eh, milk
I had been in the country only a matter of days when I was woken at dawn by the sound of a supermarket queue forming across the street. By 7am it had spiralled around the block and by 8am the National Guard had arrived to police it. Supermarket queues became a common occurrence, (as did 24/7 queues for cashpoints) they would form at short notice whenever word spread of a fresh delivery of the goods of scarcity which generally included basic staples such as toilet roll and milk. The reasons for these shortages are still disputed; many accuse the Government of ruining production by centralising industry and placing incompetent minions in charge. The Government has counter accused the supermarkets of “economic sabotage”, of deliberately withholding goods to artificially create shortages and undermine the regime. The Government was serious enough in these allegations to arrest a number of supermarkets CEO’s although it has struggled to convince the public.
Despite the frequent shortages of staples and the expense of imported goods there was an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables and I never struggled to find meat. Furthermore the prices of these “essential” goods were closely regulated with the Government providing subsidies to minimise prices so that even the poorest could afford them. The result was that one could return from the Saturday market heavily laden with supplies of food for 500BsF ($3 on the black market rates at the time) and bottled water for example, was fixed at 10BsF (a fraction of a penny) even in exclusive nightclubs. Famously oil is also subsidised and 2BsF could fill a tank if you bothered to pay at all that is. The flipside is that unscrupulous profiteers have taken to carrying these goods over the border crossings to Colombia where they can be sold to 100 to 1000 times profit.
Change the channel
Venezuelan TV is a medley of dubbed American films (ever seen “Twins” with Arnie dubbed into Spanish?!), hammy soap operas and then numerous channels of political posturing. There are several government owned, sponsored or orientated TV channels who’s programing largely consists of low budget documentaries about the great work the government is doing and daily address’ from Government ministers if not from El Presidente himself. At first this may seem sycophantic if not downright Orwellian yet it does gain some context when one considers the precedent for this; the brief, 2002 against Chavez in which all of the privately owned channels supported the illegal coup and the single state owned channel was forced to cease broadcasting. Upon being re-instated (by popular demand; perhaps indicating how out of touch with the populace the private media at the time was) the Chavez government set up the extra channels to help protect it from a repeat occurrence in the future. The private channels remain flagrant in their anti-government rhetoric with presenters openly insulting the President. To an Englishman reared on the BBC’s strict code of impartiality the whole thing seemed bizarre and bemusing and I would have switched off watching completely if the whole farce wasn’t so fascinating and the glamorous female presenters generally so damn compelling.
Speaking of the BBC, I checked their website regularly whilst in Venezuela firstly to keep up with what was going on back home (we were preparing for a controversial election of our own after all) and also to get my fix of Latin American news from a trusted and reliable source. Except it proved to be anything but reliable and on several occasions the coverage proved to be wildly out of sync with the reality I saw. The best example of this was the “Why condoms cost $755 in Venezuela” story alleging that the economic crisis and shortage of staple goods had pushed the price of contraception to ridiculous levels. The reality however was that condoms were available in all pharmacies for less than 200 BsF for a 3 pack (about $1 using the prevailing black market exchange rate at the time). Despite the dubiousness of this story it was nevertheless re-published online by numerous other “reputable” news agencies and more bafflingly of all was even tweeted and shared on Facebook by Venezuelans I had met (who frequented the same pharmacies I did) with comments such as “We can’t even afford to f**k anymore, f**k you Maduro”!
If the news agencies were either pushing their own agenda’s or were just plain out of touch with the reality on the ground then surely I could get a better understanding of the situation by speaking with the people? The answer is both yes and no. Some held very balanced points of view regardless of which side of the divide they sat on. However an alarming number attempted to pass off pretty bold and brazen statements as absolute truth, whether making the unqualified assertion that Chavez was a murderer or that the Government has executed an unlawful land grab for their private interests. Since leaving the country the spate of dubious “woe betide Venezuela” posts continues to pepper my daily social media feed, in one example an Instagram upload showing that a single apple now costs over 1000Bsf ($5) with a price label offered as conclusive “proof”. Of course the reality is that any shopper who picks up a stray price gun can manufacture that photograph safe in the knowledge that the single act of uploading it assures it a credence it otherwise does not deserve. Another time a meme (In English so clearly targeting an international audience) stated that, amongst other things, vodka and coke now costs $75 whereas I never paid more than $3 for a drink. But why were (and are) ordinary Venezuelans doing this? What was there agenda for undermining the state of their own country using dishonesty and if the situation really was so bad then why did they even need to resort to these exaggerations? I never quite figured that out and when I asked got little more than a polite suggestion to stay out of the country’s political affairs, “its ok for you, you’re a foreigner” and similar rebuttals.
Poor vs the Poorer
Perhaps a clue here though is the medium which we are discussing; the internet. Whilst PC literacy and social media are prevalent in Venezuela they largely remain the preserve of the middle class’ and widely unavailable to the poor. So was all of this spin and counter spin simply an ideological clash of Rich vs Poor? Indeed, “The poor are poor because they are lazy” was a platitude I heard coming from the mouths of people who had never themselves actually experienced poverty. Most educated, middle class people I spoke to hated the government and in particular despised the “fool president” Maduro. I heard reminisces of how Venezuela had being the richest country in Latin America, how they had been able to travel the world and take shopping trips to Miami whereas now there currency was worthless; their country had moved backwards when the rest of the world was seemingly moving forwards.
So what was this alleged worsening of living standards all for? What had the Government done with the “re-distribution” of its vast oil wealth? Drive around Caracas and you will see the ongoing construction of apartment blocks in efforts to rehouse the poor living in improvised, dangerous shanty towns (by the way, my driver for this ride was the proprietor of a successful hotel who described the project as “vote buying”. Clearly he just did not think it the place of the government to attempt to raise the living standards of if its citizens). The welfare state is evidently helping the poor as I did not see absolute destitution on anything like the scale I saw it in Colombia, a country currently undergoing an economic renaissance (largely owing to US investment) but one which unfortunately isn’t yet being felt by the poor. Education in Venezuela is respected, free and students get free travel and free meals on campus. Healthcare is also free to all and one day I had the chance to see this in practice as I accompanied my guide Emelia to a hospital appointment. Emelia was another critic of the regime and was very warnful that owing to the struggling health system we may be waiting a while for her appointment and that any (subsided) prescription may prove to be unavailable in pharmacies. As it turned out we were in and out within an hour and had no trouble in getting her meds.
If I am beginning to sound like an apologist for Venezuela’s government then please read on. I was left with no doubt that this regime, which had always being divisive, was now on the verge of becoming widely unpopular even amongst the poor who’s support it had for so long being able to count on. I met an East German who had lived in the country for 20 years who described it as “worse than” the communism he had grown up with and inflation continues to drive up prices faster than wages can keep up. Juan, my invitor to Venezuela had an enterprise blocked by the government when they refused to let him sell his imported goods and it was not clear whether the reasons for this were simply a baffling, bureaucratic ineptitude or an unofficial policy to discourage and supress private enterprise. Furthermore, and perhaps most seriously of all, the regime has imprisoned a number of opposition leaders without providing much in the way of conclusive evidence in actions alarmingly reminiscent of the desperate, dying, despotic regimes from Latin America’s past.
Whilst any population has the rights to question its Government and demand change it never became clear to me what changes people actually want. Elections have now been set for December 2015 and provided they are conducted fairly (which some are already questioning) may well see heavy defeat for the government. Yet none of the people I spoke to seemed to know what is was they would replace Chavez & Maduro’s Bolivarian revolution with or how they would appease the demands of the middle class’ without penalising the long suffering poor. Some were very fearful for what may come next and drew comparisons with Latin American regimes of the 60’s and 70’s where economic failure was succeeded by hardliner, tyrants who “disappeared” countless of their own citizens in order ideological purges to restore “stability”.
During my time in Merida I came across a trio of Brits on a trade union sponsored jaunt to see a Socialist regime in the flesh. They were very impressed by what they saw as a Utopia and maintained that the people they had spoken to considered Chavez a God. I couldn’t help but form the impression that they had being given a somewhat sheltered, selective tour by Governmental bodies affiliated with the unions. Maybe I should admire their resolve in holding fast to their beliefs much the same way I should admire creationists visiting the dinosaur skeletons in the natural history museum as for me I had gone from considering myself a natural Socialist with a capital “S” to a jaded “socialist sympathiser” with a small “s”. Another Brit I met had a similar political epiphany from being a committed A-political all her life to being gripped by the drama that was playing out around here; like me she was also struggling to draw too firm a conclusion.
Even now as I write this I still struggle to work out what was happening during my 3 months in Venezuela and have even less idea what is happening now. Why were so many people so angry and frustrated? Why was cheap petrol and alcohol (bread and circus’) not enough to keep an electorate satisfied? Why was there no milk or toilet roll and how did I learn live without them? Fresh spurts of inflation have now pushed the black market dollar to 600Bsf meaning if returned now I could live like an Oligarch and maybe it would make an unconventional Christmas vacation to head back this December for the elections. Maybe, maybe and some more maybe because after all the disinformation the only certainty I did leave Venezuela with was that I no longer hold much faith in the reliability of any form of media, in politicians or even in that seemingly honest, wholesome and informed guy you met in the bar. In fact I advise you not to even believe a word of this.