Land of confusion

The country is going down the sewer ... but this happened yesterday.
The country is going down the sewer … but this happened yesterday.

“Venezuela is the only country in the world where street vendors sell you both a copy of the Transit Law … and a nice, cold beer.”

Laureano Márquez’s riff began what was a major theme in the discussions we held in Austin about our country – about Venezuela being a land of confusion, a country mired in contradictions. It is a theme that Laureano elaborated some more in his latest column.

In keeping with this theme, the meeting itself was chock-full of contradictions – full of sadness, and also hope.

Last weekend, Nicolás Maduro made a spectacle of himself at the Summit in Panama. While he desperately tried to make his petty rants against the US the center of attention, real issues were being discussed – namely, US policy towards Cuba. Maduro, with his impoliteness, his dozens of paid sycophants, and his outdated world view, represents the worst Venezuela has to offer. It was nice to have an excuse to look away from that debacle.

That same weekend, the Venezuelan government all but suspended the sale of dollars to travel overseas. The Cadivazo took everyone by surprise, and sent many inside Venezuela reeling. Starting now, the amounts available at preferred rates to travel overseas are sharply lower, and in order to get them, you need to bribe your way through a bureaucratic maze in order to open an account with a state-owned bank. While we’ve long criticized Cadivi, we can’t help but feel sympathy for folks back home.

And boy, do they need our sympathy. The funk in Venezuela is hard core. The general tone is one of pessimism. Whether you live there, or speak to someone who does, the feeling of entrapment is inescapable.

The mood inside the country is reflected in the public sphere – when was the last time some political figure from either side sent out an optimistic message about anything?

There is an overwhelming sense of grief in our country. We’ve seen what was, we’ve harbored hope for what could be, and we lost.

Last year was particularly tough on those of us who don’t share the government’s vision. Leopoldo López’s continued imprisonment is demoralizing. Few people see the light at the end of the tunnel, or as Laureano puts it, we see the light but it is a semi truck, speeding at 100 miles an hour, with no brakes.

Amidst the gloom, the kids in Austin – young, educated, polite, forward thinking – presented the opposing view. If Maduro was the worst we have to offer, these kids come close to being the best. In spite of everything going on, they ooze optimism.

Many of them left when they were pre-teens. They don’t know who Betancourt is, or what the Pacto de Punto Fijo was about. They want to try to understand the country they still consider their homeland. They are shocked at what is happening, but they still see the sun shining above the rain clouds.

Venezuela to them is like a dream. They think of the long game. They seem to be the only ones doing so.

It is hardly surprising that the shifting tones about the Venezuelan reality end up confusing casual observers. Is Venezuela a hell hole … or the best country on Earth? Is there hope … or should everyone who can simply pack up and go? How crazy can things get? When will we hit rock bottom? These are all questions with no answer.

Ultimately, the kids are right. The events are bad, but things could get better sooner than we think. History has a way of proving things can change on a whim. Everything remains to be done. Optimism is not an illusion.

This reality risks over-simplifying the drama of the situation. Yes, there is hope, but no, it’s not easy to live off it. The Venezuelan situation is terrible, and may stay that way for many years. It is not hopeless yet, but sometimes – like when you learn that ten police officers were killed by gang members in the space of one week – being hopeful is a fool’s errand.

Ultimately, writing or talking about Venezuela must take into account the complexity of the place. No country’s situation can be reduced to a single word or feeling, and this is particularly true in Venezuela. Just when you are ready to give up hope on the place, you meet someone or something happens that makes you think otherwise. Hope and despair must coexist in a tense standoff. They are both true, and they both remain important.

This can be confusing to any of us. We like our dilemmas to be resolved quickly. We can’t live in a constant state of contradiction. We dislike the tension that this brings.

Sadly, those are the times we live in: old vs. young; optimism vs. pessimism; melancholy vs. hope; barbarism vs. civilization.

That is Venezuela today. We might as well make peace with it.