‘Don’t Eat in Front of the Poor’

In her latest column, Jessica Dos Santos sets her sights on careless ostentation amidst economic inequality.

A couple of months ago I scolded a friend, who has a high-ranking post in a public institution, for making a habit of sharing photos of her breakfasts, lunches and dinners in restaurants all across town.

“I never say where I am,” she replied. But that was not the point. I wouldn’t really care if she decided to offer free or paid advertising to a given restaurant. It wasn’t a security matter either, because she did not immediately upload the pictures to her social media accounts.

The issue that drove me crazy was seeing the exuberance of her meals. And keep in mind I’m her friend!

“How do you think people who are sweating to make ends meet feel when they see this? Or those who for years haven’t been able to afford going to these restaurants?” I asked her.

Anyone who lives in Venezuela, even with the modest economic recovery we’ve witnessed in recent months, knows it’s impossible to eat out every day (even less so at that level) with an honest income.

She explained that most times she’s showing work lunches or soirees she’s invited to. In other words, she is not paying for the meals, which doesn’t necessarily make it all fine.

“Then what should I do? Not go?”, she asked. “Don’t show it”, I replied. Minutes later I realized I was recycling my parents’ old recommendation: “eat, but don’t eat in front of the poor.”

One way or another, my affection looked to protect her from other peoples’ anger, and mine too. But, truth be told, hiding things won’t make them go away.

Moreover, my friend is not an exception. Many other Venezuelans, with high-ranking posts or not, act like this. At the end of the day, she does not have a public profile nor does she hold elected office. In those cases it’s even worse, because we’re talking about politicians who campaign defending a project that was built for the majority only to then showcase a lifestyle that’s way out of reach for their supposed support base.

There is nothing more hypocritical than praising or demanding sacrifices from the people, which have been plenty and not short of heroic, and then not understanding that posting photos of a $100 lunch is an insult.

There is a weird phenomenon after so many years of economic crisis: many fool themselves into thinking their ostentation is a kind of crusade to prove that “in Venezuela you can still have these luxuries”… even if hardly anyone can afford them.

A few weeks ago we had the extreme case of a businessman who got rich thanks to dealing with the state showcasing his US vacation, going to casinos in Las Vegas or musicals on Broadway, as if it was an achievement of the revolution!

Some studies suggest some five percent of the population, less than 1.5 million people, enjoy the fine things in this “bubble.” There’s no worse mistake than remaining trapped and imagining that everyone can afford these expensive pleasures when they feel like it.

In his yearly address before the National Assembly, President Maduro said that last year the country grew for the first time in seven years by some four percent. This recovery is visible, only the most fanatical deniers can say otherwise. Amidst the brutal blockade we’re facing, this is definitely good news. However, we cannot just assume that this new wealth will be automatically spread in a fair way.

In Venezuela, part of society gets by thanks to popular canteens and subsidized food bags. If they’re lucky, remittances from a relative abroad might allow for an extra “luxury.” The contrast with the polar opposite – a much smaller sector – that waltzes through expensive stores in east Caracas, sometimes flanked by bodyguards, could not be starker.

I recall when Chávez used to criticize luxurious lifestyles and ostentation, especially from state officials. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy the finer things in life. Rather he understood that these consumption patterns are built on inequality and out of reach for the majority.

Maybe we have the same amount of privileged people that have always existed in Venezuela, only I didn’t really notice years ago because under the Chávez government the situation for popular sectors and the middle class was much, much better.

Or perhaps we are witnessing a new elite take shape. Only this one, as a bonus, uses social media. We could dream of public exposure actually leading to a greater conscience and ethics. But social media has not been known to foster good habits.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.