Where Mass Graves are ‘Normal’, Normality Isn’t

As massacres become a weekly event in Venezuela, mass graves are crafting a new abnormal normality, rendering empathy impossible and dehumanizing us little by little.


Eleven bodies were found in a mass grave in Barlovento last week, apparently murdered by military officers; another mass grave was found in the PGV Prison in San Juan de los Morros in October. The pran (chief thug) allegedly hid away his dead enemies in it. Eleven men were murdered in iconic 23 de Enero neighborhood in central Caracas by government forces supposedly working to “Liberate the People” as our most recent security plan Orwellianly styles itself. That same week, a massacre that resulted in twelve deaths was reported in Tumeremo, product of a face-off between two gangs struggling for control of the illegal mining there, a reminder of the massacre of twenty-eight miners that occurred in March that was initially denied by the government. That same week in October, three men were murdered in a prison in Táchira and then cannibalized by fellow inmates.

These events defy comprehension. What are serial massacres called? How do we name large scale murder that doesn’t quite fit into full scale war, but rather local skirmishes between different power factions, often crime related, but often also intricately linked to official violence?

In Franz Kafka’s diary, the entry for the second day of August, 1914, reads  “Germany has declared war on Russia. In the afternoon, swimming lessons.”

We can’t even agree on how to count our dead. Much less how to name them. Even less, how to grieve for them. We have not only become desensitized to violence, we are now at a level that is desensitized to massacre, to piles of bodies stuffed in a hole so no one can see them.

In Franz Kafka’s diary, the entry for the second day of August, 1914, reads  “Germany has declared war on Russia. In the afternoon, swimming lessons.” Germany has declared war on Russia; life goes on.

News of death intersect with the trivialities of life. I guess in a sense, that is what life and death are all about.

At times we cannot do anything about cruelty and death. We have to go on living. “El muerto al hoyo y el vivo al bollo,” as the old saying puts it. But in Venezuela we don’t even have easy access to el bollo as bread lines extend for at least half an hour. What are we to do as massacres and common graves become our new normal?

A large trans-cultural research project on empathy was published on October by the Journal of TransCultural Psychology. Researchers analyzed a sample of more than 100,000 responses from people in 63 different countries.

When asked to rate how much we identified with phrases like “I often have tender feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I often try to understand my friends better by taking their perspective of things”, Venezuelans scored as the second to least empathic country in the world.

What have eighteen years of collectivist rhetoric wrought? Where has the new man gone?

In large samples, empathy scores are often related to collectivism, tender and kind behavior, being reliable and dutiful, as well as life-satisfaction and happiness.

What have eighteen years of collectivist rhetoric wrought? Where has the new man gone?

Venezuelans tend to think of ourselves as affable, easygoing, gregarious people. That’s all surface if we can’t feel somebody else’s plight. Maybe we are too busy trying to survive. People chronically exposed to suffering fall pray to “the narcissism of the victim”: they lose the ability to think beyond their own victimhood, they lose the capacity to register the suffering of others. Or maybe we’re too busy partying. Probably these two apparently contradictory options go hand in hand. Whatever the reason, compassion has become as scarce as sugar and milk.

The social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, researching on the effects of the civil war in El Salvador, concluded that chronic violence can set off what he called psycho-social trauma: the traumatic crystallization of aberrant and dehumanizing social relations, like those prevalent in the situation of civil war, a ‘normal abnormality’ that especially affects children, who must construct their identities and develop their lives within the network of these dehumanizing relations.

It pains me to realize how much of what we’re going through that characterization describes. There is so much to grieve in Venezuela, not just in our own neighborhood and not just in our own social group. With each passing day, we seem to be farther from finding a have a healthy way to live that grief.

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  1. For chavistas all of this is justified as it’s considered part of their “revenge against the evil fourth and empire that butchered millions”

  2. I want to tie your paraphrasing of Kafka’s diary: “Germany has declared war on Russia; life goes on”, with your last phrase in the post: “With each passing day, we seem to be farther from finding a healthy way to live that grief”. I guess that the only healthy way to live that grief is to learn to live with an ever-smaller buffer from the stuff we don’t like. If you live in a relatively prosperous society, you still know people are starving or killing each other far, far away, so life goes on. As that grief gets closer and closer, it seems we somehow adjust our senses, so that life can still go on. Probably the only “healthy” way in which it can go on?

  3. The low scores on empathy shown by Venezuelans replicate similar low scores obtained in past studies by american and dutch scholars , (where we instead came out as scoring very high on our high esteem of power relationships) , I think that the way people in the US and Europe measure empathy (as an impersonal SOCIAL emotion) doesnt work in Venezuela were empathy is basically personal and clannish , applying only to those closest to ourselves and our group. to people we identify with personally in our lives!!

    Abstract socially sponsored empathy is almost meaningless among us, we only feel deep empathy for people who we feel bonded to by personal ties of friendship , fellowship or kinship…….strangers we can feel feeble compassion for , but abstract goody goody boy scout emotions are not our thing….!!

    Even if people declare themselves teary eyed about the suffering of others (because socially its the thing to do ) most arent willing to do much about their suffering if it takes them out of their comfort zone !! These studies which base themselves on what people declare …..only measure peoples need to emulate a social model which is endowed with pride enhancing prestige !!

    • What you mention is meaningful. I am not a fan of large scale attempts to measure interpersonal relations. The cultural context that interprets these concepts is left out in these studies. Yet, they offer food for thought. I tend to think that what you say is true, our notion of empathy is clannish, it only extends to our ingroup: “I feel for you only because I feel that we are alike”. Ethical reasoning has to do with the capacity to take different perspectives from our own. Clannish reasoning is contrary to ethics and democratic society building.
      We are in trouble.

  4. I think that what is perceived as a lack of empathy is an instinctual self-defense measure. There is a limit to how much we can bleed (metaphorically) for others. When faced with massive suffering, we automatically increase our empathy thresholds to avoid being overwhelmed by empathic pain and grief.

    • Roy, yours is a good point ………people do try to protect themselves from painful feelings of frustration or futility by distancing themselves from others emotional suffering when they sense theres little they can do about it ……..!!

      This response however is not just a reflection of current circumstances , but something perhaps which is more deeply rooted in our national psyche , In Alberto Rials ‘La Variable Independiente’ studies are quoted which point out many Venezuelans tendency to feel that they cannot control their lives , that they must rely on a higher paternalistic power or on clannish connections to protect themselves from harm and advance their interests.

      The implications of this are broader than what is mentioned in the above piece ……and deserve refexion!! Specially in todays political context…!!


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