My name is Samuel. I am 25 years old and I am a doctor. I live in a city called San Cristóbal, in the state of Táchira. My city is contiguous to Colombia. I have lived practically my whole life in this place and I am proud to be a Venezuelan. I think my country is worth fighting for and that my land is filled with beautiful, honest, and worthy people. My nation also has a plethora of invaluable natural wealth and an endless supply of human talent. I feel that the moment we are living now is a historical moment, and I know that my perspective on it is limited, biased and probably wrong, but I will go to great lengths if, in the end, my take on the protests is heard by those interested in our current political reality. This is particularly relevant to me if we take into account that the public in general can only have access to fragmented information available on the internet and other mass media.
First of all, I would like to offer some backround in order to put this political situation in context. Venezuela is, sadly, a monoproducer. Our whole economy is based since the very beginning of the last century in the export and refinery of petrol, or Black gold, as some call it.
Over the years, the discovery of petrol in Venezuela has proven to be a curse for the nation. Ever since it was found (not too far from where I am), it has put all of the other existing lucrative activities (agriculture, industries) on the backburner. It is to the point that these other industries are practically non-existent in terms of the overall economy. By 1970, Venezuela had become the number one producer of oil on the planet, it even managed to surpass any Arabic country. However, and even though petrol has singlehandedly managed to turn the Venezuelan economy into one of the most powerful in Latin America, with the highest gross national product of its time, companies like Creole (Standard) Oil, Texaco, Dutch Shell, and whatever appointed government we’ve had, never worried about diversifying our economy, or about creating better conditions living for the great majority.
Caracas, our capital, has mutated into a monster made of highways and huge concrete towers, bordered by misery belts where some of its inhabitants live in subpar conditions. What is worse, Venezuelans now have a very ingrained culture of consumerism that you don’t see in other parts of the continent. Here, it has always been easier to buy a new product than to repair the old one and it’s easier to import than to produce. The typical young Venezuelan that will go as a tourist to any of your countries will be a vacuous being, someone overly obsessed with his or her appearence, overly obsessed with products, with consuming. He will be proud to be Venezuelan, yes, but, at the same time, he will show disdain to everything that reminds him that he eventually has to come home, to that fictitious reality fabricated by the mass media.
The truth is that, as of today, Venezuela still does not have a decent train system, we don’t produce our own food, nor do we produce local medicine or clothing. The problem reaches unprecedented levels if we think about our most basic dish, El Pabellón Criollo, and how its ingredients are not produced by our country in amounts sufficient to provide for all of its inhabitants. Those who oppose the current government claim that the production apparatus was destroyed by Chávez’s government, when in actuality it has never existed as something even remotely close to the petrol industry.
Many have tried to pass the buck to others, other governments, other countries. Chávez’s government successfully gave special importance to the classic Latin anti-American, anti-imperialist sentiment by expressing the idea that every single problem tormenting Venezuelans has a simple root cause: The empire. And it certainly is a pretty enticing idea, to blame other people for our problems. Let me remind you that Hugo Chávez never lost a single election. And, even if it hurts many of his main opponents who will probably claim those elections were tampered with they won’t be able to explain, for example, how, with the same electoral system, Leopoldo López managed to become the governor of Chacao, or how Henrique Capriles is the governor of Miranda (the state where the capital is located), or how Antonio Ledezma is the mayor of Caracas.
In 2002, groups that were then against Hugo Chávez’s government had success with their coup d’état on April eleventh. At that time, I was only a small child, but I vividly remember how the main perpetrators of the coup closed down the nation’s public TV station, Venezolana de Televisión. All of the other TV stations, who had openly supported the coup and that had shown the marches and the bloody occurrences on screen just days before the coup were then, mere days after the fall of Chávez (and while citizens protested against the anti-democratic measures on the streets) were only showing cartoons, soap operas or any other type of frivolous fodder, doing exactly what they are criticizing right now: silencing the voices of the people. This was a vile action on behalf of the media then alligned with the opposing portions, that now finds its own reflection in Maduro’s threats to sanction every TV station if they dare to broadcast the protests.
In that same year, the then-governor of Chacao, Leopoldo López, sought the Ministry of Justice, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, who was then living a clandestine life after Chávez’s fall, and arrested him under assassination charges because of his actions at Puente Llaguno, where another brutal act took place: the murder of protesters by the police in Baruta (a jurisdiction inside Caracas). This was all a trick to put the blame for many deaths on Chávez’s government and justify the coup d’état. Does it sound familiar? Yes, Leopoldo López, the same man that is now turning himself in to Maduro’s government in an intelligent political maneuver, making the government seem dictatorial and showing himself as the visible head of a faction of the opposition that is fed up with all of this and doesn’t want to wait until next elections and thinks it is important to get out of Maduro’s rule by any means.
I am left asking myself, does Leopoldo López have the moral standing to criticize the government that is now arresting him for starting the protests? Nonetheless, the same government that is now silencing protests and seeking to discredit CNN journalists has criticized, in its time, the media blackout we suffered in 2002. Both are hypocritical actions. Is there any transparent political faction in Venezuela? Can you trust the government? Can you trust those who oppose the government? I don’t trust either.
The average person protesting today in Venezuela has more valid reasons to protest than the ones I was previously exposed to. They protest for a collapsed economic system. They are calling out a corrupt judicial branch. They protest because they see hospitals without supplies. There is no division of power in government. The limits between the current political party in charge and the nation itself are blurry. Life in Venezuela has become extremely challenging, in some cases even impossible. Insecurity is a problem that grew out of control for the government a long time ago and that was never publicly recognized by Chávez. The number of homicides taking place here is embarrassing to even think about and our judicial and penitentiary systems are collapsing and corrupt.
The country’s economy is going through one of its worst moments ever since Chávez’s government started. The measures taken in this field by the government ever since 2002 are based on a system of control of currency exchange called the CADIVI, which tries to contain the amount of capital that leaves the country. The system has experienced relatively little change since then. However, social detriment has become greater and the fact that maintaining a government subsidy for each spent dollar (the official exchange rate right now is one dollar for 6.3 Venezuelan bolivars) stimulates the existence of a black market where every dollar sent outside the CADIVI reaches an exchange rate of about 80 Venezuelan bolivars. Excessive demand and the low supply of dollars resulting from a low amount of investment creates a problem since the cost of each dollar increases progressively. It is not unusual to see professionals (doctors, architects, engineers) buy products (milk, TVs, rubber) which end being subsidized by the government at the official exchange rate and then resold on the black market for a far higher exchange. Sometimes, the goods are taken to Colombia, where they can be sold and turned into a fabulous profit. The problem has reached a point where the city’s taxi drivers, living close to the border, prefer to take gasoline (technically free in my country), rubber and milk to sell in Colombia, generating many terrible problems related to a lack of supplies in Venezuela. Not too long ago, they caught a member of the military in Zulia, another state near the border of Colombia, trafficking with cancer medicine, scarce now in the hospital where I work. The central bank has produced millions of Venezuelan bolivars without backing them up, generating one of the highest inflation rates in the world (60%).
The government’s answer to the protests, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more unfortunate. Hundreds of military members patrol cities, going overboard and hurting protesters with no need. Many students have died. It’s curious, many members of the current government were once leaders of political student groups, and now they are employing the nation’s resources to end a manifestation that had the possibility of ending with no consequence.
The government’s response to the protests on the other hand, could not be more unfortunate. Currently, the great majority of the streets in my town are barricaded with obstacles that people call “guarimba.” Members of opposing political parties have threatened local business owners with burning their stores if they dare to work. I can understand that a person’s frustration can take them to try to collapse the cities to create political instability. But, is it really the way to go about it? Recently, protesters haven’t let ambulances with the sick and wounded cross their protest lines. On highways, protesters that have nothing to do with the student protests charge a fee in order to let people get through.
Today I saw with extreme sadness that a mountain nearby was on fire. Is it really necessary to destroy forests thousands of years old because of a political dispute?
Is it really a political problem we have? If we went from a leftist government to another in the right wing, would it change things? My view is that our problem is not political, but cultural. I think the time has come to start looking at ourselves in order to understand the origin of our problems. We should become generators of solutions.
Lastly, I just want to leave the foreigners reading these lines with a piece of advice. If you are really interested in this issue, don’t be content just with the reports issued by CNN, Univisión or Telesur. You won’t get an unbiased view of what’s going on here, much less the perspective of a Venezuelan. Try to look for the causes before repeating a poorly told lie. I hope one day you can visit my land and appreciate all the worthwhile things it has to offer. Look for me, I’ll be waiting here.