CARACAS – Venezuela, my home country, has it all: beautiful and breathtaking landscapes, abundant resources, even unique wonders of nature like the Angel Falls or the Catatumbo Lightning.
Yet if you’ve heard our name in the news recently, it’s as the subject of tragedy: toilet paper shortages, desperate people scavenging through garbage to find food for their families, bread lines, a systemic failure of our public utilities, dogs flayed in broad daylight for meat, corruption, lack of proper medicine and health access, weighing stacks of cash, and so much more.
It saddens me to say that it’s true, all of it, a product of 20 years of socialism.
I was barely eleven years old when Hugo Chávez began his first term in 1999. When this “Bolivarian Revolution” started to change the constitution and morph our laws I was just an introverted child that had just moved to the capital of the country, fascinated by video games, cartoons, and Power Rangers and with an overactive imagination.
This perpetual revolution has laid down a status quo in the country that often forces you to lose your personal aspirations, to cast away your future, hopes, and dreams; it changes you in many ways until you’re no longer a citizen — you’re merely a survivor.
Today, here I stand, more or less that same introverted kid — but with 20 years of ever-increasing hardships upon my shoulders; a lesser version of what I could’ve been, clinging to those memories where everything was simpler and all of it made sense.
This is a personal account of what has my life become after twenty years of Bolivarian Revolution— 20 years that comprise two-thirds of my life.
I’ve done so many bread lines that I’ve lost count, I’ve engaged in bartering of food and medicine, I’m actively taking expired meds because it’s simply better than nothing, and I’ve adapted every aspect of my livelihood around the tribulations inherent to living in Socialist Venezuela while taking care of my younger brother who can’t fend for himself given his mental condition. It hasn’t been easy since we’re two socially inept siblings, but we keep going no matter what.
Socialism has slowly eroded the functional existence of every aspect of our lives, from our freedom of speech to our economic liberties, our access to healthcare and personal documents to our water supply. Each of these structural collapses – the absence of healthcare, the worthlessness of our currency, systemic corruption in the government and military, and widespread censorship – have affected me personally.
Socialism is a trendy topic in the United States at the moment, which means my story is relevant beyond Venezuela’s borders. Over the course of this series, I hope to inform American readers about the realities of existence – and survival – in a socialist country. And I hope that by reading my stories, Americans will be forewarned enough that they remain distant stories, rather than firsthand experiences.
The Cult of Personality
Every revolution and socialist/communist regime needs its great leader figures, its martyrs, and vanguard. Venezuela is no exception.
Circa 2007, Hugo Chavez was no longer referred to by his party as just “President Chavez” – nope, he was now called the “Commander-President,” a subtle change that conveyed a heavy ideological weight.
Following his death in 2013, Chavez was elevated to “Supreme and Eternal Commander of the Bolivarian Revolution.” Please, believe me when I say I wish I was joking. The Cuartel de la Montaña, the military headquarters where Chávez hid when his 1992 coup failed, became his mausoleum, his temple.
The fact that this pristine quasi-temple sits atop a mountain surrounded by shanty houses is the perfect encapsulation of socialism.
Pilgrimage to his sacred revolutionary shrine is expected of you if you want to partake in the glory of socialism. Every day a salvo is fired at the hour of his “sowing” or “siembra” in Spanish (in socialism leaders don’t die, they are “sown in the ground” instead. Cuba recently did the same with Fidel Castro).
The “performance” always ends with an exclamation that begins with “Independence and Socialist Fatherland.”
South Americans have always been a religious people. We’re mostly Catholic and they’ve sure known how to exploit this. At the height of his power, Hugo Chávez felt mightier than God, going as far as to claim that he no longer believed in a god. After he was diagnosed with cancer, he started to openly beg Christ to not take him just yet.
The “Eyes of Chavez” and his infamous signature have become quasi-religious symbols. His eyes are plastered all over the place here in Venezuela. They serve as a reminder that the Supreme and Eternal Commander sees all. His signature serves a similar purpose, a reminder of who to thank for that free house you now live in (but don’t actually own).
Reruns of Chávez’s old Alo Presidente weekly TV show are aired on the State’s main channel like gospel; the regime’s authorities love to claim that they’re simply “preserving Chavez’s legacy.” If that wasn’t enough, you can always get the mark of the bea — sorry, I mean, Chavez’s signature tattooed on your skin.
Maduro is also not just the “President.” He has been fashioned into something greater and is often referred to as the Worker President, the Driver of Victories, and the son of Chávez. If all of this sounds bizarre well — welcome to socialist Venezuela.
Sure, it’s not North Korea, but it’s just as abhorrent if you ask me.
The Bolivarian Revolution loves to break your legs and then demand eternal gratitude because they’re loaning you a pair of broken crutches.
They’ve given out free housing to the poor, yes; but these people do not own the apartments. Their “CLAP” box subsidized food program provides citizens with small amounts of low quality imported items, such as old beans, pasta, spoiled milk, oil, or tuna — and they expect you to feed your family through an entire month with it.
The program is corrupt, the quality of the items contained in these boxes leaves much to be desired, and they’re exported at double their retail price. When the time for a pro-regime rally comes, you damn well better wear that red shirt and attend, unless you want to risk losing your public sector job, house, and breadcrumbs.
These are two of the ways the government’s “benefits” are used to keep its sympathizers in check. One of the newest and most dangerous ones is their “Fatherland Card” program, a system that was largely created with Chinese assistance, based on their Social Credit System.
While its full-blown implementation slowed to a crawl due to several circumstances, the end goal is the same: absolute control of Venezuela’s citizens to force them to submit to the dictatorship or languish as second-class citizens.
The Fatherland Card database contains a dangerously high amount of information, from names, numbers, addresses, work information, income, family members, vehicle information, and etcetera.
Social benefits and monetary bonuses are now being distributed through this program. If you or any of your family members need a medicine then their goal is for you to obtain it through this; refuse to fall in line and you’ll risk losing access to it.
Access to subsidized gasoline through this program has been one of their goals as well. Our gasoline is so absurdly cheap it might as well be free — paradoxically, you will be long dead before you’re able to save enough money for a new vehicle.
The only reason this hasn’t been implemented yet it’s because they hit a roadblock due to the precarious and obsolete state of our internet infrastructure.
Ultimately, the glorification of Chávez as the Supreme and Eternal Commander of the Revolution, and the creation of a scenario where the people are forced to depend on the government’s breadcrumbs to barely survive, has only served to subdue our citizens, bombarding us with a non-stop ideological narrative that presents them as the heroes that are saving us from a calamity of their own creation, fighting a good fight against the great enemy: The American Empire and Capitalism.
Of course, that evil capitalism they fiercely denounce? It’s totally fine for their sons and family members.
An obedient, docile, and subservient country, desperate to survive and yearning for a better life, deprived and stripped of hope. Cuba has done it, North Korea has done it, and unfortunately, Maduro’s regime has ramped up its efforts towards achieving this goal — I don’t want this to be our fate.
Christian K. Caruzo is a Venezuelan writer and documents life under socialism. You can follow him on Twitter here.
This article is the first in a series on life in Venezuela. Continue the series here.