But no one may ever make peace with poverty when it falls like a gigantic shadow upon his countrymen and his house. Then he must be alert to every humiliation done to him, and so discipline himself that his suffering becomes no longer the downhill road of grief but the rising path of revolt.
Walter Benjamin, One-way Street
In the mid-20s, with a fresh memory of the hyperinflation that hit the Weimar Republic between 1921 and 1923, Walter Benjamin wrote about the perception of “impending catastrophe” prevailing within the German bourgeoisie. This was expressed through one of the “stock of phraseology that lays bare the amalgam of stupidity and cowardice constituting the mode of life of the German bourgeois…” – “it can’t go on like this.”
Benjamin pointed out that this perception of profound “instability” responded to the fact that, in contrast to what had happened in the years prior to World War I, bourgeois class interests were being directly affected: “Because the relative stabilization of the prewar years benefited him, he feels compelled to regard any state that dispossesses him as unstable.”
But what is central to Benjamin is the reflection that economic “stabilization” often condemns an enormous swathe of humanity to dispossession: “stable conditions need by no means be pleasant conditions, and even before the war there were strata for whom stabilized conditions were stabilized wretchedness.”
It is important to remember: rarely does the bourgeois “mood” coincide with that of the popular classes.
What do we know about the origin of the phrase “Venezuela is fixed” [Venezuela se arregló], so commonly used nowadays, and what does its use reveal?
Anyone who investigates its origin will find two surprising things: first, its origin is not in the country itself, but abroad. Second, it was originally deployed to note a critical distance with the instrumentalization of the Venezuela issue by the establishment media in countries like Spain, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile, almost always at electoral junctures and looking to favor conservative political forces.
This is what emerges from a Twitter content review, which serves here as an approximate reference, but is quite illustrative. During the 2016-2018 triennium the phrase was employed about fifty times on the social network. In almost half of the cases, its ironical use alluded to the sudden disappearance of Venezuela as a topic in the newscasts immediately after the elections, in stark contrast with the overexposure in times of electoral campaign.
This will change slowly in 2019 when the phrase begins to be used by Venezuela-based social media accounts. Most importantly, instead of reflecting a critical attitude towards the hegemonic narrative of the Venezuelan reality, its use reflects a cynical attitude: in most cases, the use of “Venezuela is fixed” is sarcastic, knowing that it is false or, to be more precise, based on the conviction that what is being stated is a lie.
This cynical turn tends to coincide with – or rather grow in response to – phenomena of deep social significance, including the de facto dollarization of the national economy, the liberalization of prices, and the massive elimination of import tariffs. For a segment of the population, these translate into a limited perception of “normalization.” This “normalization” derives from the fact that, since then, it is possible to trade with a strong currency [the US dollar], store shelves are once again stocked, the market is flooded with imported products and, at least in theory, the possibilities for sumptuary consumption are multiplied. All this happens, however, in a hyperinflationary context.
In principle, the phrase “Venezuela is fixed” is a denial of “normalization.” In some cases one can even identify the intention of questioning the deeply regressive character of the policies aimed at controlling hyperinflation and “stabilizing” the economy, but this is not often the case. Generally emptied of true critical nuances, the phrase tends to be associated with a massive renunciation from the attempt to understand what is actually happening.
In any case, this cynical attitude is largely the result of confusing times during which it is increasingly difficult to maintain the idea that the two antagonistic projects are still in dispute. Programmatic boundaries have become blurred. In the twilight of the Bolivarian Revolution, everything is gray on gray.
The government has adopted an economic policy that, if applied by an anti-Chavista government, Chavismo’s social base and an important part of its current leadership would unequivocally denounce as neoliberal. Meanwhile, the anti-Chavista leadership, fractured and politically and militarily defeated, debates between celebrating or rejecting the general orientation of an economic policy, with which it fundamentally agrees. Disorientation is the norm.
Hence the ambivalent quality of a phrase growing out of the self-denigrating discourse that characterizes anti-Chavismo (“Venezuela cannot be fixed”). But, at the same time, it could also be tributary to a potentially subversive common sense (“If it was only fixed for a minority, Venezuela was not fixed”).
This ambivalent character will be reinforced as of 2021, due to the social media viralization of the phrase. From just six mentions in April, it will increase to around a hundred during the month of May. This will be the turning point. From then on, the growth will be exponential: more than five hundred mentions in August, more than fifteen hundred in September, more than two thousand in December.
What can explain the shift? What happens during 2021? Two things in my opinion: first, the “normalization” still in the making in 2019 settles in. This entrenchment brings the perception that the aforementioned phenomena, namely dollarization, restocking, imported products everywhere, the multiplication of bodegones [high-end imported good stores], the reopening of bingos and casinos, etc., are here to stay. Additionally, the policy measures aimed at controlling hyperinflation are beginning to yield results: inflation has remained below 50% for twelve consecutive months and with the exception of one month has been below 10% since September 2021.
Both circumstances – an economy that is walking at a steady pace towards “normalization” and the defeat of hyperinflation – allow us to understand not only the overflowing optimism of the ruling party, but also the fact that it went on to dispute the meaning of the phrase “Venezuela is fixed” (sometimes explicitly, almost always implicitly), through a narrative with abundant references to “economic recovery” and similar topics.
It is my hypothesis that the decision of the ruling party to dispute the meaning of the phrase added to the feedback that this generated in an audience prone to cynicism and, to a lesser extent, a segment inclined to adopt more critical positions, is what explains the hold of the expression.
Beyond the bourgeoisie’s “catchphrases” that Walter Benjamin commented on, the issue here is that the “stabilization” that benefits the bourgeoisie as a class will generally hurt the working class. Again, an economy undergoing “stabilization” may well mean “stabilized misery” for the majority.
It may be debatable whether the expression “stabilized misery” is accurate to describe the current Venezuelan situation. What cannot be disputed is that poverty, misery, and inequality have grown significantly since 2014. Additionally, and in my opinion this is the most important thing, it can hardly be argued that the government’s economic policies point in the direction of reversing the situation. In fact, the opposite could be argued.
Growing popular mobilization in 2022 by trade unions, teachers, pensioners, public administration workers, etc., seems to show that, much more intolerable than material and spiritual deprivation, is an official narrative that, supported by official figures, suggests the existence of an “economic miracle.” Evidence of the latter would be the growth of the economy for four consecutive quarters, starting in the third quarter of 2021, at an average of over 17%.
But if the above can be translated by the official discourse as the sign of a “miracle,” how should one name the fact that between March 15 and September 20, 2022, a brief six-month period, the minimum wage dropped from $39.95 to $21.77? Likewise, how should one understand the regressive modification of the wage scales or the arbitrary detention of workers who have denounced severe corruption cases?
In spite of blackmail and government pressures, the persistent mobilization of the working class has continued and, with it, the very evident attempt by some anti-Chavista actors to fish in troubled waters. Both have been kept at bay. But perhaps the most significant aspect of this mobilization is that it could be heralding times in which cynicism, ultimately functional to the preservation of the current state of affairs, loses ground to more critical and belligerent positions.
To put it in Benjaminian terms, instead of making peace with poverty, it is a matter of sharpening the senses numbed after years of humiliation and deprivation, and resuming the ascending path to rebellion. Ironically, it may be that the inordinately optimistic official narrative while the popular majorities are having a tough time, has contributed to rekindling popular dignity. It is a well-known fact that, just as He works “miracles,” God acts in mysterious ways.
Reinaldo Iturriza López is an activist, writer, and sociologist with a degree from Venezuela’s Central University. He is the author of several books, including 27 de Febrero de 1989: interpretaciones y estrategias and El chavismo salvaje.
Iturriza López, father of Sandra Mikele and Ainhoa Michel and Venezuelan baseball enthusiast, is a former Culture Minister and Communes and Social Movements Minister. He also headed the Audiovisual Production School at Ávila TV. He writes regularly for the blog Saber y Poder.
Translated by Venezuelanalysis.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.