By Robert Bradley
The news comes in busloads from Venezuela. It seems that every day exposes another open wound, more injured children, greater hardening of hearts and minds.
There are those who shrill, “The country needs to be made great again,” and, “We’re sick and tired of being ignored while being robbed of our cultural heritage.”
There are others who mourn the loss of compassion, the collapse of tradition, and the abandonment of civilized behavior.
There is one thing that almost all Venezuelans agree on regardless of their political affiliation — faith that their beloved country, an authentic, and god-chosen land, would survive its recent troubles and prosper.
They were wrong. Welcome to Venezuela.
I spent the better part of two weeks interviewing refugees, many of whom had arrived in Cuenca without a penny or legal papers of any kind. I was stunned to find that the stories shared a grim commonality I’d never considered.
That commonality is a gun.
Violence is everywhere in Venezuela. It is unbridled, fierce, fueled by gunpowder and hatred. A million people have already fled for their lives.
Those remaining, who have not yet managed to extradite themselves, are left in an urban jungle that is riddled with propaganda, pockmarked with unbending ideology as well as bullet holes, and stained with blood.
Here are three stories of people who sought refuge in Cuenca, Ecuador. The stories and people were chosen at random.
One person’s identity will remain hidden. For this story, we will call her Elena, but I’ll begin with the story of another refugee named Luis.
Luis turned 20 last week. He arrived in Cuenca two years ago at the urging of his mother, who said he might be able to support her and the extended family, from Ecuador.
He might also survive.
For most of his high-school years in Caracas, Luis took a varied, but a pre-determined path to and from school. The house had two entrances, so changing his approach home, or choosing a new way to school was not only possible, it was “prudent.” Playing soccer with friends in a park, or checking out girls in the mall was a distant memory. Those places were way too dangerous for any but the most foolhardy, or those in need of a fix. Family outings of any kind in public squares were no longer an option in most people’s lives.
These days you drive quickly, slowing for red lights, but never stopping. The windows are rolled up tight, and heads kept low, ears tuned for any sound out of place, any threat in the making. A flat tire in the wrong neighborhood could prove fatal.
The now-pulverized economy of Venezuela was once rock solid and the envy of all of South America. In its place today is a landscape scarred by fire, wanton destruction and tales of brutality. The crackle of gunfire is as ubiquitous as radio static.
Today in Cuenca, Luis said he would celebrate his birthday on his next day off. But, he doesn’t have a day off. He works seven days a week, logging an average of 70 hours. His meager food industry income is divided among his mother, father, godmother and her infant baby, plus a handful of his fellow countrymen, recent refugees to Cuenca, and facing even greater integration difficulties than he did.
Luis said, “When I arrived here two years ago, strong hands lifted me from the turmoil of my past and welcomed me. Venezuelans were recognized as suffering severe repression, opening their hearts and homes. People expressed their admiration for my decision to move to an unknown land to support my family. Now when people look at me, they look over my shoulder, to see how many others are flooding towards them.”
He continues: “I hope to attend university soon. I want to study languages: German, Italian, and advanced English. I am learning a valuable lesson in Cuenca; diversity is elemental for a stable economy and a progressive culture, and I want to be part of this new paradigm.”
When I asked if he will return to live in Venezuela, he did not hesitate for a moment. “Of course. My family is there.”
Jose is 48. He and his brother, Carlos, age 52, established a bakery (Europan Place, 13-16 Mariscal Sucre ) specializing in Venezuelan bread, pastries, and pizza. The first anniversary is coming right up. Unfortunately, his brother and his brother’s family — a wife, and young daughter — returned to Venezuela several months ago. The brother’s parents, 68 and 81 years old, felt besieged, vulnerable and afraid. Someone had to go home to protect them. When I asked Jose to describe their fears, he responded by pointing a finger gun to my head and dropping his thumb with the muffled sound of an explosion.
Every day, Jose arrives at his bakery a little before 5 a.m. He opens his door, “When the bread is ready,” and closes it a bit after 9 p.m. He will lock the door and go home sometime around 11 p.m., or so, as soon as he has prepared dough for the next day, swept and mopped the floors, and washed the pots and pans of his trade. The bakery is closed on Sunday. When I asked him what he does on his day off, his answer was a matter of fact: “laundry.”
Jose considers himself a fortunate man. The bakery has become somewhat of a clubhouse, or cultural center, for Venezuelans living in the neighborhood. Folks come to watch the World Cup matches, and play cards. There is often boisterous laughter and apparent comradery among his guests. However, his contentment is measured, tempered by the loss of a child in Venezuela, and his longing to be among the extended family he left behind. When I asked if the business is good, he said, “It is OK.” When I asked if he will settle here for the long term, he becomes more reflective.
“Cuenca opened her arms to me, and for that, I will always be thankful. I can support my family back home, and still, have some money for me. But, my greatest wish is for my homeland. I yearn to see my mother again. I want to walk in my childhood footprints. I love Cuenca, but I am devoted to Venezuela”.
Elena does not have a positive thing to say. She is bitter that ill winds blew her to a place she long regarded as backward, unsophisticated, and cold. She is a 58 years old single mom with three young children.
In 2012, Elena packed up for Spain, but after two attempts to immigrate, she believed that the complexities of becoming a legal resident were just too daunting, so she returned to Venezuela.
Nicolas Maduro ascended to the presidency and, in her mind, and those of many others I spoke with, the decline of the country accelerated into a fatalistic vision of failure. Venezuela became a river of brown lemmings swelling towards the sea.
When a friend suggested Ecuador because restrictions on immigration were less restrictive, she made a move.
When I asked, she said this, “The people of Ecuador are backward country bumpkins who never left the 19th century, much less joined the 20th or 21st. You see it on the streets every day; people dress like National Geographic postcards, content to be poor, ignorant, and stupid. The roads are bad, the food worse. What little social help I receive for my three boys is drying up, and I will forever be under the yoke, plowing sterile fields with no hope for my sons or me.”
When I asked if she would return to Venezuela, her answer was as brittle as a sundried twig.
“No. My country is gone. I am trapped in a job I hate, in a country that disgusts me, with a burden I will endure until I die.”
The collapse of Venezuela once seemed impossible. But, it was not. Even the most influential countries are as vulnerable as stone against pushing water.
Venezuela recently, and most say fraudulently, re-elected a president who is guiding his country into near total collapse. To suggest it is some other country or somebody’s else’s fault is not true.
Leaders are elected to defend their homeland against evil. If they are incapable of behaving rationally and managing affairs of state for all citizens; they are incompetent, and people should look elsewhere for someone who is capable.
There are lessons to be learned from the fall of Venezuela that will absorb academics for years. But, for those who live it, what is needed now is something more, ways to find new meaning in life, elsewhere.