Ever since the quarantine began [in mid March], I’ve tried to go out only once every two weeks when I need to restock on food. In particular, those items that run out or perish quickly, and which no Venezuelan can live without: cheese and plantains, for example.
Each new rendez-vous with the streets, the very Caracas streets that I’ve roamed for 30 years, has been a new experience. The first time around, I realized how much I treasure the Caribbean sun, and how much I’d missed it. Then, I resisted the urge to hug every acquaintance I ran into. During the lockdown, upstairs and all by myself, I was gripped by a tremendous fear that COVID-19 would see us lose – for good – the desire to be close to each other. And that taking into account that Venezuelans hardly need an excuse to throw themselves at each other.
In the middle of the supermarket, I stopped to observe the people around me in this brave new world. I noticed that the eyes talk, that smiles survive even when covered. I also figured out that our ability to struggle is alive and well when I heard a woman curse the supermarket manager for marking up prices all the time. “You people are the real pandemic, dammit,” she yelled, facemask and all.
As I listened to her, I felt the terror of those who see their purchasing power evaporate in mere days. But I was also relieved to feel that, even if the virus imposes six feet of distance, it does not do away with the causes that bond us together.
However, at this moment I also questioned my own perceptions. “Is it the case that in Venezuela prices go up every day, several times a day, but now we are more shocked because we only look at the little numbers once every two weeks?” I thought to myself. The old boiling frog syndrome. We never realize when our mother or husband puts on weight because we see them every day, but visitors will take notice immediately.
As I went out, I walked past several men selling on the sidewalk (pieces of cake, homemade loaves, etc.). “These disgraceful and inconsiderate fucks,” I screamed inside. But, a second later, my brain walked it back. This is the reality for the majority of the population worldwide: those who don’t work, don’t eat. And those who don’t work today go to bed hungry.
Many newagers have gone about preaching that “this pandemic does not discriminate, it kills everyone equally.” Give me a break. This pandemic is revealing all that is rotten, and there is one thing at the core: inequality. Perhaps the virus does not discriminate, but the system sure does, it feeds off of it.
Amid our confinement, on one hand you have the people watching Netflix 24/7, and on the other those who have to carry a cake, or 30 kilos of fruit, on their backs, exposing themselves not just to the dirty looks (like the one I perhaps threw) but to being infected and infecting their families.
Nevertheless, in Venezuela, the dirty look does not stop us from thinking on our feet and acting from a place of empathy. A few days ago, I listened to the testimonies of some of the over 20 thousand Venezuelans that have returned from Colombia, Peru and Ecuador in recent weeks. They are victims of xenophobia and collateral damage from the coronavirus. Migrants take up the hardest and most precarious jobs, and are the first ones hit by a crisis. “It doesn’t matter, we just want to be back home. If I have to endure hardship, I’d rather do it in my country. In Venezuela people always help each other, here it’s the complete opposite, it’s everyone for himself,” one of them said as he was interviewed on the way back.
This sentence rang in my head for several days. I realized that, in a nutshell, it explains why I never left Venezuela: because I know my country. The same reason why, outside these borders, nobody understands how we’re still alive and smiling. Surviving a pandemic is no doubt much more difficult away from home. And home, for most Venezuelans, is just that: the country where we were born.
However, the economic situation in Venezuela is becoming ever more terrifying. Looking to respond to a new inflationary spiral, and under the weight of deadly US sanctions, the government raised wages. But the minimum wage sits at a mere US $4, around what a kilo of meat currently costs.
Furthermore, the government insists on negotiating prices with the very businesspeople that day after day, year after year, have violated any and all deals. We are told that it is possible for businesspeople not to lose money and for people to still access goods. But in a system where the former’s profits depend on the exploitation of the latter, is that really possible?
How do you establish these deals during a war? And a pandemic on top of the war? That is perhaps the new issue keeping my mind busy these days. It tries, to no avail so far, to find answers, even if in other historical contexts. The struggle continues.
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) and a university professor. 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 Ricardo Vaz for Venezuelanalysis.