64-Bit Caudillismo

In Tropico 4, I discovered that life in a ridiculously over the top Eastern European game designer's delirium of a dysfunctional Banana Republic is...pretty much indistinguishable from what goes on outside my window.

Venezuela’s history in video games is a short, unremarkable one. We’ve mostly featured as some throwaway country game developers grab for when they get tired of using the Middle East as a setting. Oddly enough, we ended up in not one but two of the worst videogames ever made.

So I was surprised to discover the delights of Tropico 4, a management simulation game developed by Haemimont Games set and in an over-the-top, tongue-in-the-cheek, cliché-ridden Banana Republic that has nothing to do with Venezuela. (And yes, I know, Tropico 5 is already out — I’m one release behind. Tiempos de crisis, mi pana.)

Playing Tropico 4, a profound question kept bubbling up in my mind: is life so absurd in Venezuela now that it’s impossible to tell from outright parody? 

First a little disclaimer. Zelda obsession notwithstanding, I’m not much of a gamer. All my friends were into Counter-Strike or the dozens of indistinguishable gray-and-brown shooter games that seemed to clog the videogame industry throughout my adolescence. Those never spoke to me.

I’m more into games where you have to collect resources, manage a budget, and micromanage every little aspect of my household/city/ever-expanding empire. That’s hours and hours of guaranteed fun! (And no, I don’t have a girlfriend, why do you ask?)

I went through Age of Empires, SimCity, and The Sims…but I’m also obsessed with media, culture, and all things Latin America. So am I into Tropico 4? You betcha!

First, you get to customize your in-game avatar. Let’s have a look!


Too vintage. I want to look presidential, but not like as if I’m waiting to greet Perón in Maiquetía.


Too pavoso. I mean, boina roja, seriously? So 2004.


I don’t know about you, but this has too much of a Diosdado-meets-Pedro-Navaja vibe goin’ on for my taste.


Sadly, giant-red-jacket-with-bullet-proof-vest-underneath wasn’t on the menu, so I had to settle for this retrato de prefectura en la cuarta outfit with a snazzy red cap to show I’m still down with the common man.

Your avatar doesn’t do much, though. You just go around in a limo, looking presidential and making appearances, the highlight being the speeches you get to make from el balcón del pueblo.

Which, truth be told, is slightly more than Maduro does on any given day.

Meanwhile, in the tutorial, your character’s mentor, the bearded, cigar-smoking dictator of a neighboring Caribbean island, shows you the ropes. I wonder if he’s based on anyone in particular?…hmmm.

Next, you have to learn to grow crops suitable to each region on your island. You create an infrastructure to carry resources, production centers and markets, and tend to the basic needs of your citizens in order to keep the cycle going. By the end of it, you’re probably more savvy than the last four chavista Finance Ministers, put together.

One of the first mistakes I made was putting all my chips on developing the iron industry, thinking I’d eventually need steel to build some infrastructure. Fickle beast that she is, the global market for steel collapsed and my ore reserves soon ran out. So I couldn’t afford to build farms or other kind of mines, or to invest in tourism. Basically, I planned the whole thing wrong…see? I’m a natural.

Then the little money I did have went up in smoke trying to keep going the useless bits of infrastructure I did manage to get built: including imports for raw materials needed for my money-losing factories and unfinished construction projects.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, my population had long outgrown the meager produce of the farms I’d started out without me noticing it, so now the markets couldn’t import food and some people were starving to death.

I plainly had no clue wtf I was doing. I kept expecting the real phone to ring to offer me a real ministerial post.

Up against the wall, I came up with a #winning idea: I needed to sembrar el hierro.

My plan was to jump straight up from a primary, natural-resource-based economy to manufacturing without proper training, market research, or any of the boring bits.  If you, for example, grow sugar you can easily run a rum distillery. If you don’t, you just import sugar. Turns out —and someone really ought to have explained this better in the tutorial— that if you import everything and produce nothing, you go broke.

Long story short, I now have a whole industrial park entirely idle because it wasn’t getting enough raw materials and the few members of the workforce with enough education were making a bee-line for the airport and snapping selfies of their feet over some mosaic for lack of career opportunities.

No biggie: a few clicks of the mouse and I’d put in place a “no emigration” policy to stanch the brain drain.

It doesn’t help that there’s virtually no private property in Tropico. Sure, you can build a stock exchange, granting concessions for hotels and mines to foreigners, but it’s something entirely peripheral. This isn’t like SimCity where you designate some areas as residential, commercial or industrial.

Part of the fun is that El Presidente has to deal with absolutely everything personally, from an international controversy between the European Union and the Middle East to firing some random worker in a cannery.

Once you have something ressembling an economy going, the game begins in earnest. Around this time you usually start hiring a handful of loyal ministers and yes-men and building up your army to protect your government as you tamp down on quarrelsome factions.

Loyalists, you soon realize, can be the hardest to please.

Every citizen in Tropico is sympathetic to at least one of eight factions: communists, capitalists, religious, intellectuals, environmentalists, militarists, nationalists, and loyalists. Every now and then you have to cave in to their demands, which can range from reasonable (build more schools or cut taxes) to, well, a bit out there (destroy all banks, ban immigration).

Loyalists, you soon realize, can be the hardest to please. They’re essentially your fan club and demand ridiculous things, like building your own mausoleum or suspending elections. After all, everyone should love you, why you should that be put into question?

It’s a great fun ego trip giving in to their jalabola demands, but also a quick road to political perdition. (Did I already mention playing this game as a Venezuelan fucks with your psyche on all sorts of levels?)

Not getting re-elected is one of the few ways you can be ousted and therefore, lose the game. Of course, you can make empty promises or tweak results a bit or suspend the vote altogether, but that can take a toll on your approval rating. (This is one way Tropico 4 departs decisively from Venezuela 2017: approval ratings still matter.)

Also, if you download the Modern Times mode, the UN can force you to do elections. Ugh, international organizations, amiright?

You can still have a media blackout on the other candidate, though. (Note to Tropico 6 developers: you need a MIN-Unidad option!)

Personally, my favorite strategy was approving a fat tax cut right in the middle of the campaign, which easily swings a third of the population behind me. #Giordaning.

Other ways to lose the game? Push enough disaffected citizens to join the rebels that they eventually overpower your army and attack the presidential palace, disaffected military launching a coup —that’s why you have to keep them happy and with a big, fat paycheck— and a flat-out uprising, in which disaffected citizens go to the palace and loyalists and the army defend you and… things get violent.

¡Ni un paso atrás!

There are ways to influence the populace, though, and the most effective one is media. You can make newspapers, and radio and TV networks that, at first glance, earn you a couple of freedom points but you always choose the content they share. You can even have your own TV show named —I kid you not— Hola, Presidente. Why bother allowing international media to criticize you when they can watch you droning on and on and on?

Another way to rule is through edicts. You don’t have some pesky legislature getting in the way, so as long you have a trusty minister in the designated area you can pretty much approve whatever you want!

Sure, you could pass edicts for receiving humanitarian aid or setting pollution standards, but where’s the fun in that? Military modernization? ¡Aprobado! Bribing faction leaders? ¡Aprobado! Printing money like there’s no tomorrow? ¡Aprobado! Same-sex marriage? ¡Ap-! Oops, that was close.

With the Modern Times mode, which allows you to progress beyond a vaguely Cold Warish setting, the main game is set adds a whole slew of new edicts for the 21st Century. Among these are handing off diplomas to loyalists, policing the internet and asking for financial bailouts from China.

You sell them whatever products they ask from you, take an international stance or two, and beyond that they couldn’t care less how you run your little #TropicoMierda basket case.

And then you have the international factions. First, you have the two big boys in the neighborhood: the United States, represented by an ambassador (emphasis on the “ass”) that constantly belittles your country while asking for resources, and a seductive Soviet agent that constantly asks you for money to keep the proletarian revolution afloat.

There’s also a Chinese businessman, a very European aristocrat, and a Middle-Eastern sheik but despite their constant demands to trade different goods and borderline-offensive characterizations you deal with all of them the same way:you sell them whatever products they ask from you, take an international stance or two, and beyond that they couldn’t care less how you run your little #TropicoMierda basket case.

Sooner or later you get the hang of Tropico and in my case, it was depressing. Keep a couple  of social programs around for good publicity and maintain your populace more or less alive and fed, indoctrinate them from a young age to know nothing other than worshipping you, pay lip service to whatever demand shows up from abroad, keep the money flowing and keeping power isn’t all that hard.

What is a Banana Republic, anyway? It’s a paradox, both vague and distinctive. There’s no list by Umberto Eco explaining what makes one, but we all pretty much recognize it when we see it.

Tiny, hungry nations bordering the Caribbean Sea; colorful jungles and beaches and endless plantations interrupted by grisly, overcrowded cities where poverty is rampant and life is cheap. Sure, there are stereotypes about the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, but our everyday dysfunction has a name.

And of course, no Banana Republic would be complete without the jefe, the generalissimo, the bombastic, uniform-wearing strongman making shady deals around, locked in eternal struggle with the rebels, who no doubt once they come to power they will sell out just as he did.

I remember back when I was in Elementary school, during El Paro, our teacher told us that there was poverty in Venezuela but we couldn’t compare ourselves to countries like El Salvador or Nicaragua. We were impoverished, sure, but they were poor. We couldn’t be like them because we had oil, right?

A Banana Republic is basically a developing nation where government, social strata, economics and overall stability are primarily bound by a single export good, leading to demagoguery, corruption, and inequality while a Petrostate is… well, pretty much the same but with a more profitable export good, I guess.

Hats off to Haemimont Games for managing to capture the day to day absurdity that everyday life serves up to us. Researching this piece, I found out they’re a Bulgarian game company, and no strangers to decades-long oppressive regimes where a single person has all the power, only without the nice, year-round hot weather.

I can’t really dump on Tropico 4, though I grant that if you’re looking to forget your day to day miseries, a Venezuelan can do better. If I’d been going for escapism, I probably should have gone with Undertale. Then I would be crying for a whole different reason.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.