VOICES: Returning to Venezuela

‘The quality of life for millions… can be destroyed by the ambitions of a powerful elite’

By: Ricardo Serrano

I couldn’t believe I was finally doing it. This summer I was returning to Venezuela, my home country, three years after moving to Canada. When I left Venezuela, I never thought I would spend so much time away from home. Now I was going back during the most turbulent time for the country. Since April, thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets to protest against President Nicolas Maduro and his decision to abolish parliament and create a new constitution. Hundreds of citizens have died, and scores of others imprisoned, as a result of these protests.

A week before my trip, I went gift-shopping for relatives and friends in Venezuela. But when you are travelling to Venezuela, you don’t buy regular gifts. Instead, my luggage was full of medicine, food, and basic-need products things that are now missing from the shelves of supermarkets, drugstores and shops in the country.

I packed Harina Pan, the dough that Arepas (the Venezuelan national dish) are made of and which is now very hard to find in Venezuela. Today, it is easier to make an Arepa in Canada than it is in Venezuela.

My first night in Caracas, I was stricken by the crisis. My grandma asked me to help her take the garbage out, but when I was about to close the bags, she said, “Please don’t tie them up, because the people who eat from the garbage ask us to leave them open so that they don’t have to make a mess when looking through it.” I was shocked. I stayed up the whole night looking through the window waiting for people to come. And then it happened. A man walked by, followed by a group of children, and then an entire family. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to see in my entire life.  

Part of the reason for this trip was that I wanted to write some stories about Venezuela. When I got to Caracas, I had several scheduled interviews, so I needed to find a way to move around the city. I decided to hire a moto-taxi, one of the cheapest and most popular transports in Caracas. Moto-taxi drivers have gained a bad reputation because most robberies in the city are carried out by motorcyclists. Nevertheless, I hired someone I trusted: Rene. He used to work as a delivery man for the office that I worked at when I lived in Caracas. Rene is the father of three girls and is married to a woman he calls mi senora (my lady in Spanish). During my stay in Venezuela, I interviewed several politicians and experts about the crisis, but it was Rene who best represented the struggles of Venezuelan people.

I was going to be travelling with Rene for the next three weeks, so I thought of paying him through a bank. But Rene does not have a bank account. Like most Venezuelans, he lives with what he makes daily.

“What I earn today, I spend today. That’s how I survive.”

So I had to pay him with cash, which would normally not be a problem, unless you are in Venezuela. The country is currently going through a shortage of cash. ATMs don’t work and people line up for hours at banks in order to get very limited amounts of cash.

Part of the problem is inflation, which is the highest in the world. Prices change every day, and the currency cannot keep up with the prices. Until January this year, the bill with the highest value in Venezuela was the 100 bolivar, which is now worth nothing.

The banks give you a maximum of 20,000 Bolivares daily. Half of my time in Venezuela was spent going bank-to-bank until I gathered the money to pay Rene.

Rene would charge me only 50,000 Bolivares (C$2.80) for an entire day’s work. That barely covers a meal at a very cheap restaurant.

One afternoon, after finishing one of my interviews, I invited Rene to eat at a pollera,  which are grilled chicken restaurants that you find all over Caracas. While eating, Rene looked at me and asked: “If I tell you something, would you believe me?” I said, “yes.” Rene replied, “I have not eaten chicken or any meat in months. In my house we’ve been eating bread with anything that we’re able to find for months.” And then he added, “I just wish my girls could eat what I’m eating today.”

I didn’t know how to react. I was sad inside, but I didn’t want to express it and make him feel worse. I’ve never had someone tell me that in person. That day we took chicken to Rene’s daughter and his senora.

I also wanted to document the long lines people waited in just to buy food. I had asked Rene to take me to some of them. But I wasn’t able to record most of them, because taking pictures is prohibited and has already landed several reporters in jail, and there were soldiers supervising the site. One of the supermarkets that we visited had a lineup three blocks long. When Rene asked what the line was for, a lady said that they were selling Harina Pan. Rene wanted to take some for his senora so I waited in line with him. After almost two hours, we were told that they had run out of Harina Pan, so we had to leave. The day before leaving Venezuela, my grandma gave Rene the Harina Pan that I had brought to her from Canada.   

I was sad to see how things had changed so dramatically since I left. I wanted to leave with an image of the city that I missed and that I still hoped to come back to someday. The day before my flight, I asked Rene to take me on a tour through the colonial part of Caracas. We visited the museums, cathedrals and historical sites of the city, some of which Rene who has never left Caracas didn’t know about.

On our way home, Rene decided to take the Avenida Boyaca. That’s the highway that passes by El Avila, the mountain surrounding Caracas. From there, you can see the entire city from above. It was around 6 p.m. and all the macaws, tropical parrots that fly from balcony to balcony during the day, had returned to sleep in the mountain. I thought it was Caracas saying farewell to me. It served to remind me of how the beauty of Venezuela remains, even with the many problems that exist. For me, it’s hard to understand how the quality of life for millions of honest, hard-working people like Rene can be destroyed by the ambitions of a powerful elite. I left Venezuela with great sadness after seeing the hard reality people go through every day. But at the same time, I am a big believer in the idea of good always defeating evil. I am convinced that most Venezuelans are as good as Rene. It seems impossible to suppress Venezuelans’ desire for self-improvement much longer. At the end, I left with the hope that soon the macaws will fly over a free Venezuela.  

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