By Neilyn Giselle Halmoguera, a Venezuelan architect who left the country in 2015 looking for a better future
35 estimated deaths in protests over the last four weeks have shaken my country to its core. This figure includes hungry civilians, students and minors, like 17-year-old musician Armando Cañizales.
69 years since Venezuela joined the Organization of American Estates as a founding nation; a membership that is now jeopardized by the decision of a few individuals in power, because the organization’s recent calls for the preservation and defense of democracy have made them uncomfortable.
18 is the number of years that the Chavista regime has ruled. Think about it. Brutal dictatorships have come and gone in less than 10 or 15 years in other countries, yet, Maduro, hand-picked by the charismatic revolutionary leader before he died, and a self-proclaimed “son of Chávez”, is the current face of an ongoing “revolution” that obtained political power back in December 1998. To put that into perspective for my first-world contemporaries, we have had the same government since the year Ocarina of Time came out, Torn by Natalie Imbruglia was peaking in the world music charts and Bill Clinton still had three more years as leader of the United States.
18 years, also, since Chávez’s own constitutional project for the nation was voted into effect by most citizens, thus, creating a new legislative and political structure which, amongst other things, changed the country’s status from Republic to Bolivarian Republic. Now, his “heirs” are trying to implement an interpretation of it which would allow for the creation of a new Constituent whose participants would be selected and strictly controlled by the government. This would render all current laws obsolete and give them a blank page to fill with any rules they want.
433 is the end of my Venezuelan ID number, which means that, if I still lived there, I could only buy groceries on Fridays. Of course, I’d have to be lucky enough to find that what I needed was available when I went to the store.
37 euros per month is the minimum salary in the country with the biggest oil reserves in the world (yes, even bigger than those of Saudi Arabia). This includes the special “food-only” vouchers; so, taking that sum out, the real salary is around 16 euros per month. This ever-decreasing amount is calculated from the black-market value, which is the real exchange rate most Venezuelans get to use.
3 currency exchange rates cohabit the economical nightmare that is Venezuela: the official figure, arbitrarily determined by the government since the exchange control was implemented in 2002; the SIMADI, which is seldom used; and the black market. Hyper-inflation is the most obvious result. Companies struggle to be productive with 20% of their resources coming from the official market, because that is the limit that the government allows them to use, and the rest is obtained from the black-market, which is about 460 times more expensive. These businesses must necessarily sell their products (medicine, meat, rice, paper) with the black-market price if they are to survive. So, in a country where the minimum monthly wage is below 40 euros, a chicken ends up costing 5 euros.
Once per month, then, is the average number of times that most Venezuelans can eat chicken. The same type of shortage also affects medicines, and people are dying because they can not find or afford them.
Thousands of private companies have been expropriated since 2002 by Chávez and his followers, including PDVSA, Venezuela’s flagship oil company. The majority have been driven to mediocrity, under-production and bankruptcy. This was both an attempt to put “trusted” and “faithful” Chavistas in wealth-earning positions and a deliberate strategy to weed out all sources of independent economic power within the country. The Chavistas deliberately made the country more dependent than ever on oil prices, because they control the oil and, thus, people’s needs.
More than 1 year ago, an Estate-controlled system of food distribution, called CLAP, was introduced to, supposedly, combat contraband and help the needs of the poorest citizens. Cut to now, and the whole concept has become a snake pit of corruption and blackmail: some people can only eat in Venezuela if they prove alliance to the ruling party. Every aspect of daily life is in a chaotic state right now. The social, political and economic panoramas are unnerving. The whole country is falling apart. Are we going to eat today? Do we have enough money? Will we survive the weekend? These questions have been asked by an ever increasing number of Venezuelan families for many years, but it’s just now that these problems are so exposed that they are starting to become visible to the rest of the world.
4 years have passed since the death of Chávez, and the thick veil of his charisma is finally eroding. Make no mistake: this isn’t an ideological conflict; this isn’t the left against the right, as the official rhetoric says; nor a mediocre government failing because of their “stupidity”. These people have intentionally and systematically destroyed a nation with horrifyingly efficient results. Their goal has always been to maintain power until their last man is standing. They can’t afford to lose or else they’ll face a lifetime in jail. Dignity, morality and hope were hard fought for values long before Chávez died. The internal fight against dictatorship has been long and fought on two main fronts: the streets and the ballot box.
80% of the National Assembly seats were won by the opposition through national elections in December 2015, beating a gargantuanly unjust propaganda system that uses Estate petrodollars to pay for TV spots and appearances, mass-entertainment events, rallies with thousands of remunerated participants and the consciousness of a lot of people inside the Electoral National Center. From the moment the results came out, there has been an ongoing verbal and legal war between the Executive and Judicial powers and the Legislative branch, with the former two trying their best to discredit and villainize the latter in the eyes of the people.
5 weeks ago, the Supreme Court, which was hand-picked by Maduro, ruled that it would take over the legislative powers of the National Assembly. After a wave of criticism swept the region, blaming the government of perpetrating a self-inflicted coup d‘état, they tried to backtrack on the decision. It was too late. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets of Caracas and other major cities since then. On April 19, they joined in what was dubbed the “mother of all marches”. The first victims fell after being shot when clashes broke out. Armed forces keep shooting pellets at close range and teargas bombs which have likely expired. They are taking away our right to peaceful protest which is explicitly stated in our current Constitution. Families are starving, while a group of no more than a hundred are set on letting the country burn to the ground before they are ousted. Journalists and analysts speculate that we may have reached a point of no return: people are fearless, they go unprotected (even naked) to put their lives at risk in front of an increasingly violent system of repression. There is no other way for many of my compatriots, since high risk and danger are our normality, even when things are “calm”…
Here is an Instagram account with some of the best pictures from the last month’s protests.
1800 was the estimated number of murder victims in Venezuela in 2015. That is around 1 person killed every 3 minutes, which could be your mom, your son, your husband or your best friend. The circle is always closing in and everybody knows someone who has been kidnapped, robbed at gun point or murdered, sometimes just for a box of eggs. Most of these killings are concentrated in Caracas, my city, and other big towns. Our capital, renowned as the City of Eternal Spring a few decades ago, and a past beacon of progress in Latin America, is currently catalogued as the murder capital of the world.
With contributions from Ricardo Espinoza, a Venezuelan video editor
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