It’s a fantasy I find myself indulging a lot these days. The year is 2056. I’m an old man, past 80. Out of the blue one day, my grandson, now in his final year of high school, turns up in the teleporter, sits down with me, and asks to talk.
He tells me his history teacher gave him an assignment to interview an older person in his family about what life was like in the months before Bolivarian socialism finally collapsed. His assignment isn’t to get an explanation. His assignment is to get a story: a nugget that reveals what 2016 meant.
What would I say?
How would I transmit the flavour of this period to a kid growing up in a radically different kind of Venezuela, a country that, by then, has refound its normality, a country with problems, of course, but normal country problems, not the riot of dystopian dislocation that now engulfs it?
There’s a virtual infinity of ways to approach this, of course. But this week, I fancy that conversation would go something like this:
“Mijito, where to even start? Ummm. OK. I know.
See, towards the end, there was a big problem with bread. You know, just bread. You gotta understand, chamo, molecular recombinators hadn’t even been invented yet. If you wanted bread, you actually had to go to a shop — a ‘panadería’, we used to call them — and buy a loaf they’d make there in an oven…”
“Wait, a what?”, he’d ask.
“Um, it was sort of like a primitive recomb…a big hot thing they made bread in, but let’s not get into that…”
“OK,” he’d mutter, and I’d see him scribbling ‘recomb=oven’ in his notes.
“The government had decided there was a maximum price panaderías could charge for bread, and a maximum price suppliers could charge panaderías all the stuff you needed to make bread: the flour, the electricity to run the ovens, the sugar. But none of the prices made any sense: they were all way, way too low.
“Not surprisingly, at those prices, many more people wanted to buy bread than there were people willing to sell it.
So, of course there were these immense lines all over the place. It figures, bread was almost free. There was just never going to be enough to go around. Toward the end, bread had become almost impossible to find.
“Now, that’s not my story. My story is about how the government reacted. Mind you, people — all kids of people — had been telling them for years that until they stopped fixing prices, the shortages weren’t going to stop. They were sure those ‘opinions’ were part of a conspiracy, though, so they refused for years to pay attention to them.
“So you want to know what they did instead? What their best, brightest idea was for facing up to this bread crisis? What the combined ingenuity of their collective wisdom came to as a solution to this problem? Go on, guess…
“Wait…wait, what?” the chamo would say, rubbing his temples and struggling to make sense of what I just said.
I don’t know if I’d be proud or seriously concerned if my grandkid guessed right at this point. I’m guessing the later: it would take a very twisted mind to guess this one right.
“They decided to fine bakery shops if they had a line of people outside waiting for bread! That was their solution!”
Unless I’ve grandfathered an idiot, I’d expect some pushback at this point.
“Wait…wait what?” the chamo would say, rubbing his temples and struggling to make sense of what I’d just said. “How would that even…I mean…how would…how is that even supposed to make anything better? Wouldn’t that just…because…wait WHAT?”
At this point I’d have him right where I want him.
“I swear I’m not making this up. It really happened. In August, 2016, if memory serves. The National Superintendent of Fair Prices babbled something incoherent about dismantling the strategy to generate anguish among the population that bakers were supposedly conspiring to implement.
“But grandpa,” the chamo would say, if he’s avispao, “that makes no sense at all!”
“But, but, but…what possible reason would bakers, of all people, have to roll out some enormous conspiracy to piss off all their clients?!”
“I mean that’s crazy! How would that even work?! Didn’t this superintendent dude see that if even a single baker decided to break the cartel he’d end up buried in money by just supplying all the bread himself while all the other panaderos sat out the opportunity?!”
“I KNOW!!! It was totally, totally insane.”
“But here’s the thing, chamo,” I’d say, pressing my advantage, “it’s not just that I know that now, and knew it then, it’s that everyone knew it. Outside the government, it was actually hard to find anyone who didn’t find it totally bleeding obvious, bang-your-head-against-a-wall-in-frustration obvious. Unmistakable, really.
My worry is that the chasm in lived experience between us would be too wide to ford with words.
And it wasn’t just bread. The entire country was run this way, by people spouting non-stop non-sequiturs, looking sternly into a camera and announcing things any moderately bright ten-year-old could see were complete non-sense. It wasn’t this decision or that decision made by this official or that official, it was a wall of gibberish coming straight at you day and night from men with guns determined to make your life impossible.”
I don’t know if he’d still be with me at this point. My worry is that the chasm in lived experience between us would be too wide to ford with words. But it wouldn’t matter, I’d have built up a head of steam by then. There’d no stopping me and he’d know it.
“It’s no wonder anybody who could leave the country, did leave: all through that time there was this bizarre dislocation, this mismatch, between the total inability of the people in power to find solutions even to the simplest problems, on the one hand, and their absolute and unquestionable power.”
“And that’s the thing, really, that sticks out when I think back to that last period before the whole cockamamie scheme collapsed, the thing that makes the memories of that time so dreamlike, so strange.
The total, total uselessness of the people who ran the country perfectly matched their total, total lack of accountability. The way even though everybody could see they hadn’t the faintest idea what they were doing, they were nonetheless empowered to make the big, transcendental decisions that would reverberate through millions of people’s lives. The way failure seemed to propel careers ever upward, onto planes of even more power where their utter inability solve any problem could spread more and more chaos into more and more people’s lives.”
“That’s what it was like to be Venezuelan in 2016, chamo. Write that in your school report.”
I imagine my grandkid walking out of that talk staggered, and not quite sure how much of what he’s just heard he should really believe.
If he’s smart — and I hope he’s smart — he’d walk out unconvinced. Skeptical. The gap between what he would have just heard and life as he’d understand it should set off all kinds of warnings. If he’s smart, he’d walk out telling himself to double check and triple check everything he’d just heard before putting any of it in any school report.
And if he’s a proper intellectual —and that would be such fun— he’d soon find himself in whatever the 2050s equivalent is to a Wikipedia hole, digging deeper and deeper into period sources and slowly coming to grasp, to his amazement and horror, that grandpa wasn’t even exaggerating.
That holy shit, in August 2016 the government really did announce it would fine bakeries if they had lines of people waiting to buy bread outside. That Power and Common Sense really can end up that radically divorced from one another, divorced to a point distinguishable from comedy only by the amount of misery created.
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