Between Looters and Prayers

A woman carrying a child runs wildly to reach the food line. A Metro passenger reads the gospels and quotes Chávez. Senseless, bizarre, but real.

The first thing I see is a lady holding a child. She runs, with her eyes fixed on a spot ahead and nothing -and no one- will prevent her from getting to her destination. The kid squirms trying to keep his trousers from falling off from the jamaqueo.

I move aside because we’re on the same path: a collision course. Two more women come behind her, and on and on until the thing becomes a stampede. They’re not running from a bomb, or escaping from any town-burning monster and much less hiding from an alien invasion. They’re running toward the Chinese-run store that’s soon to open its doors. From what I hear from the people running, they’ll sell two packs of flour and two bars of soap.

Scenes like this play out again and again every day in Caracas. Many of us who remain in Venezuela have witnessed them. This, in particular, takes place on Avenida Victoria, which used to be famous chiefly for its acacia trees and its European-style buildings, showing the influence of Spanish and Italian immigrants who came to live here in the 50s.

Now, Avenida Victoria is a battlefield where the National Guard —and sometimes the National Police as well— sprinkle insults and peinillazos on people while they stand in long queues to buy food.

pelea-mercadoA number of shops, stores and supermarkets that once boasted about their family-friendly service are now like little trenches where people fight for toilet paper, a kilo of rice or a package of pasta.

Women, men, children, the elderly and even people in wheelchairs run (or roll) to eat, to survive.

I’m still astounded to watch people run like this. The reason for it boggles me more than the act itself. I haven’t lost my naiveté; I think that’s not right.

Women, men, children, the elderly and even people in wheelchairs run (or roll) to eat, to survive. It doesn’t matter if you have to sort through speeding cars to cross the streets. That makes the “adventure” all the more fun. Meanwhile, drivers are forced to maneuver Dakar-style to avoid running over some of these “adventurers”; who are just out to get something to cook for the day; who will, perhaps, turn on the kitchen tonight and cook some arepas on the budare. The filling they can worry about later.

Yes, we laugh. We don’t cry. Because survival mechanisms give us something we need as much as food: hope.

Caracas has empowered its fiction. Reality is child’s play. Bakeries don’t have bread here but they still open. Supermarkets don’t have food, but employees keep sorting the shelves. Queues form spontaneously, just to see what’s there to buy. They’re almost like a hobby. And the three meals a day every nutritionist recommends are a joke everybody laughs about.

Yes, we laugh. We don’t cry. Because survival mechanisms give us something we need as much as food: hope. You choose. Some people let off the steam with a mentada de madre to the government. Others are like statues, reacting only to the need to breathe. And many resort to prayer. “God will save us all,” says something I read somewhere.

Apparently the Metro is their new church. It doesn’t matter what direction you’re going, you see them. Worshippers from all walks of life. The last one I saw wore a suit and tie. Never mind that his style went out the door as he wore black shoes with white socks, the relevant thing is the small bible he held in his hand. With cat-like agility he read a verse about sin. About salvation and how “Jesus is coming.” Not losing the criollo touch, he talks of an advent, putting Chávez alongside Christ: “Jesús sí viene arrecho, no como Chávez.

Many of those present looked at each other’s faces, having no idea what this character was talking about. Wondering instead why air conditioning wasn’t working.

I think shortages and prayers don’t go hand in hand. But it seems that, in this city of contrasts —a bit cliché, I know— citizens have found two solutions that don’t cost a dime: running, and sometimes looting. And praying so that all evils go away.

So, every time we go out to the street, we hear stories about some shop that had to close its doors to prevent angry and disgruntled customers from looting it. With the respective phrase that sticks to our skin like the salves they sell in buses in El Silencio: “we’re living biblical times.”

And we keep searching for new messiahs, new redeemers, who might show us the new commandments that will magically restore us and take us through the path of righteousness.

None of this is new. During the Caracazo, my grandma, my mom and I had to hide in one of our apartment’s closets to shelter from the bullets that ricocheted from the building’s walls. We lived in Quinta Crespo, calle 500, just next to the market. The National Guard —it wasn’t “Bolivarian” yet— took every shop at gunpoint and dispersed the looters: the same ones who grandstanded before news cameras saying that they were hungry as they carried off TV sets and stereos.

They say history repeats itself. Only this time, it seems, it comes with a touch of “divinity.”

Jefferson Diaz

Born and raised in the most dangerous city in the world. Journalist and full time observer.