(Editor’s note: We welcome a new addition to Caracas Chronicles, Raúl Stolk, @raulstolk. Raúl is an attorney, and I’ve long admired his writing in Prodavinci. I am thrilled he accepted an invitation to write in English for CC. This post is based on a real story)
Pero tenemos patria.
There is no easy translation. The community managers who handle the Venezuelan President’s unintentionally hilarious English-language Twitter account translate patria as “homeland.” “Eternal Commander, today our people are in the streets fulfilling your order #ComunaONada. We have homeland and people.” Yes, this is a real tweet.
Not sure if homeland fits the exact definition of patria – it lacks the paternalistic essence of the word. Perhaps “fatherland” would be a better fit, although Google Translate probably spat it out as a second option. So, the complete sentence would go “but we have homeland.”
The phrase was coined by Hugo Chávez, the Eternal Commander himself, when explaining that Venezuelans had to suck it up and stop whining about material issues such as power and water shortages, rocketing inflation, and scarcity of luxury products such as milk, cooking oil, chicken, and toilet paper. The country’s best satirists have had a hard time trying to keep up with the astonishing phrase.
Pero tenemos patria – an expression that has become a placeholder for sorrow and deep frustration. A joke. An annoying cliché that stands as code amongst those who are tired of waiting for change but even more damn tired, perhaps, to actually act upon it. The irritating catchphrase can be heard on taxicabs, in supermarket queues, and in government offices everywhere.
“Pero tenemos patria,” says Mirna Suarez, a low-ranking officer with 20 years experience in the tax administration. Her eyes fix on mine, if only for a second, as she mumbles the words, a discreet diss at the her superiors for the nameless bureaucratic requirement I am missing, one that Terry Gilliam himself would not have been able to concoct. As I chuckle at her comment, she promises to do her best, and asks for my patience. We’ll see each other in a week.
By the end of the day, Mirna unshackles her revolutionary apparel, the uniform she is required to wear to work every day. She places the red vest and the hat in her bag. The world could fit in that handbag. The subway is very close, but she decides to walk a few blocks through the Sabana Grande Boulevard. She needs fresh air. She is worried.
Her salary got swamped by 2013’s devaluation, and then by 2014’s non-devaluation. She has been selling cakes just to keep her head above water. Mirna walks, gets distracted watching people go about their business, negotiates a couple of kilos of flour with a Turkish storekeeper, and arrives at the subway station.
Unlike other people, Mirna finds a little peace when riding the Caracas Metro. She believes only good people can be found there – students in their school uniforms, young professionals going home for the day, all hard-working people, beautiful people. No more red shirts. No more uniforms. Most public employees take them off after leaving the office.
“This is Venezuela’s finest export,” she thinks, as she watches a young couple holding hands. The girl has dark skin, a glowing face, and is wearing scrubs. Probably a medical student or a doctor. The boy, on the other hand, is ghostly white, with curly hair, and wears a suit and tie. She notices his shoes. They seem dirty and worn-out.
She is reminded of her own children. Her son, a production engineer, left the country a couple of years ago. He now lives in Panama working for a multinational. Her daughter lives in Canada and works as a paralegal in a law firm. She just had a baby, a grandchild Mirna hasn’t met.
Mirna looks at the couple again and feels a glimmer of hope. They seem happy. They are still here.
The subway races under Caracas’ wrinkled skin. Just as she is starting to relax, the lights go off suddenly, and the train starts slowing down until it stops.
Another power shortage. Mirna looks around nervously and finds the warm eyes of the young doctor, who smiles at her and says: “Pero tenemos patria.”