In recent months there has been a raging debate among Venezuelans. Are things getting better or worse? Many will argue that the political, economic and social outlook is much better than it was from 2016 to 2020.
It’s hard to disagree. There are no guarimbas (violent street protests), shelves are no longer empty, and whether from remittances or new work opportunities, many Venezuelans have secured incomes in US dollars. This has allowed people to do things that had been off-limits for a long time, like eating out or going to the dentist.
This opinion is shared by those who have returned during the pandemic chaos. They found a picture quite different from when they left – the shortages of basic staples and medicines, the long queues to secure them, the paralyzed retail because of missing cash and payment mechanisms.
On the other side of the fence are those who claim it is irresponsible to point out improvements and delegitimize positive comments with the now popular ironic catchphrase “so… Venezuela is fixed.”
A few days ago, for example, I invited my girlfriends out for a snack, and as soon as I got to the table with coffee and slices of pie, both screamed “hell yeah! Venezuela is fixed!”.
That very day we tried to put this debate in context. We did so by remembering some past things we had gone through together. For example, the times when all we could afford were 100 grams of “artisanal coffee” in the streets of Caracas, only to later find out it was just roasted flour mixed with dirt.
There was also a time when I forgot to put the cap on the dubious toothpaste available back then and in the evening you couldn’t squeeze anything out.
Another classic are the thousand ways we had to cook the lentils or “Chinese beans” that came with the CLAP [subsidized food] boxes. One time, our weekend adventure was making a rice pudding with the infamous Mexican milk that came in the boxes and we were sick for three days.
“How did we stomach those things?” one of them asked. “Desperate times call for desperate ideas,” the other retorted. “The worst part is that we convinced ourselves that things weren’t so bad and even had fun with it,” I claimed.
Also “fun” was the queue to get condoms. Yes, that also happened. In Venezuela condoms disappeared, but the family planning NGO (PLAFAM) managed to get some boxes from China. It sold them dirt cheap but with restrictions: only X amount per person, only once a month. Hence the long queues.
One afternoon we decided to get in line. Hours later we got the condoms. Needless to say, when we got home nobody wanted to have sex. Exhaustion and sunburn won. But after recharging batteries came the worst disappointment. Let’s just say the condoms from China were meant for smaller male members than the average in these parts.
As you can see, there were tears and laughter during those years, though the situation was quite sad. And I’m merely talking about day-to-day life, without touching the broader political context. Meat and poultry were totally out of reach, the same went for diapers and sanitary pads.
To avoid riding on perreras (old pick-up trucks working as mass transportation units) we would ride in my little car, but the tires had tons of patches. One time, one of them exploded and we had to pay the mechanic with two cream cheese sandwiches we had brought for lunch because it was impossible to find cash or make a wire transfer.
That is why it is definitely surprising to see Caracas (because changes are way more visible here) with new businesses opening all the time or 20 major concerts in the last three months. Even if it would be normal elsewhere. It was also the norm here not that long ago.
Beyond wondering who owns the shops or where the money comes from (if it’s laundered or not) many people are happy about it. It’s hard for me to criticize them. I just can’t do it. The joy of other people is contagious. I can’t find a way to lecture people for being “consumerists” or for not realizing that a high-profile concert does not mean the country is now producing what it needs.
Deep down I’m full of concerns: our economic indicators (the known ones and the ones the state has hidden for years), the terrible situation of our hospitals and schools, the low wages and the (self-)exploitation we are all subjected to, the electricity blackouts and the dire state of public services.
I also think about more intangible things. Is this really what we wanted? That a section of the population can afford to shop in bodegones (high-end stores), sip mochaccinos, go to concerts or take trips to the beach? There is a deep and very upsetting inequality all around, and it is usually left out of the debate.
At the end of the day, the scenario looks a lot like Venezuela before Chávez arrived. Deep inequality with most fighting for breadcrumbs while a few split the whole cake. We can’t let this be seen as normal once again.
Seen from afar, it can even seem like our society is a victim of gender violence of sorts. We got hit thousands of times but all of a sudden our partner will only hit us once a week and it’s a relief! We feel good, we’re almost happy!
Five years ago my friends and I were jumping through hoops to scrap together a few dollars to buy a couple of chickens for a birthday lunch. Now we are sitting in a café, recalling those episodes as if they are part of an old movie we don’t want to watch again, though it amuses us. In the meantime, we just found out that by paying in foreign currency we got hit with an extra 3% tax… because even though we’re still poor, we pay for coffee in US dollars.
To sum up: it’s not easy for someone outside Venezuela to grasp this. Even we Venezuelans – be it those who stayed and went through all these episodes or those who left and came back – don’t have a consensus on the matter. History is like this, a country in motion, but we have a long way to go.
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.