A favorite joke in my husband’s repertoire has Fidel Castro, before thousands of people in the Plaza de La Revolución, as a man in the crowd yells at him “I’m hungry.” Fidel asks to bring the man on stage and requests several pitchers of water from his assistants, which he then makes the man drink one after the other. After the last glass, he asks the man ”are you still hungry?” to what he replies “no.” Fidel then turns exultant to the crowd and says: “You see: this man wasn’t hungry. This man was thirsty!”
I’ve been thinking about this joke a lot: tropical gaslighting avant la lettre. Authoritarian regimes have this knack for twisting reality, for bending it to suit their version of the truth.
Just over a month into Trump’s presidency, crowd-size debates, Russian shenanigans and allegations of voter fraud have shown this isn’t just a south-of-the-border thing. But while this is all uncharted waters in the U.S., in Venezuela we’ve been around this particular block a few times. For 18 years since Hugo Chávez came to power, we’ve grown used to living in Alternativefactland.
Economic war is an alternative fact turned official doctrine: the canonical explanation for, well, everything that goes wrong in the country.
A few years back, Gabriela Ramirez, a former Ombudsperson with strong ties to the PSUV ruling party, said we needed to “reduce the feeling” of being unsafe that people had as a way of coping with our sky-high murder rate. It doesn’t matter if someone was asking for your mobile at gunpoint, and how many times you would hear this story from friends and family: for Gabriela, the numbers were irrelevant. It was the perception that people had of how bad things were (and still are) that counted. No wonder, then, murder rates have continued to rise: our governments obsesses about perceptions, but seems to have no feel at all for the reality that gives rise to them.
Then there’s our economic war (guerra económica), chavismo’s go-to excuse for the pervasive shortage their policies have created – whether it’s toilet paper or chemotherapy drugs or tires or condoms. Economic war is an alternative fact turned official doctrine: the canonical explanation for, well, everything that goes wrong in the country.
Venezuela, we’re told, is waging a war against imperial forces allied with homegrown enemies of the homeland that impede goods from entering the country, and keeps perishable items stashed in warehouses —since the early 2000s!— to create despair and destabilize the government.
This isn’t an explanation that holds up to any kind of critical scrutiny. At all. It leaves outside the fact (yes, a fact) that Chavez seized thousands of farms that produced the rice, sugar, corn and milk and ran them into the ground. It conveniently omits the price controls that drove thousands out of business, as anybody with a passing acquaintance with economics knew they would.
For years we’ve been told that what we are seeing is not what we are seeing, and that what we’re hearing is not what we’re hearing.
Right here on Caracas Chronicles, Quico Toro recalled how then Vicepresident Jose Vicente Rangel told one of his colleagues, still choking on the cloud of tear gas she’d gone through mere minutes earlier, that there was no disturbance outside and that it was all a fabrication from the “fascist media.”
The word “mierda,” Lara explained, was part of Venezuela’s “cultural heritage.”
And there is that time when the late Willian Lara, then Communications Minister, defended the use of the word mierda (shit) by President Chavez referring to the opposition’s victory in a national consultation on constitutional reform (his exact words were victoria de mierda). The word “mierda,” Lara explained, was part of Venezuela’s “cultural heritage,” adding that Hugo Chávez needed to be thanked for using it, just like Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez did in his books. Days later, Lara went in front of the cameras to read the closing paragraphs of “El Coronel no tiene quien le escriba” to highlight the Hochkultur use of the word.
I know, it’s difficult to decide what is more distasteful: that a sitting President described the democratic will of the people in straight-up scatological terms in front of a live nationwide TV audience or the very thought of putting Chavez and Garcia Márquez on an equal literary footing.
But perhaps one of the most disturbing alternative facts of all has been the slogan “Chávez vive” (Chávez lives) when he, quite indisputably, does not. Here, the autocracy’s fantasist instincts butt straight up against the outer limits of necromancy. It really is disturbing.
The power of relentless repetition is easy to underestimate. Coupled with continued attacks on independent media and outright censorship, it gets harder and harder to distinguish reality from fiction.
We saw this dynamic in full display four years ago, when he was due to take the oath of office in early 2013 but couldn’t, due to his failing health. His party, PSUV responded by organizing an act in which dozens of his followers were “sworn in” in lieu of the President because, after all, “Chávez somos todos” (we are all Chávez).
Taking up permanent residence in Alternativefactilandia is risky. You start to worry (really worry) about your mental and emotional health. The power of relentless repetition is easy to underestimate. Coupled with continued attacks on independent media and outright censorship, it gets harder and harder to distinguish reality from fiction.
Even worse, relentless gaslighting ends up driving people to the point of no longer caring which is which. At some point, you know the government isn’t just lying but aggressively falsifying the truth, you come to accept it as normal. After all, there’s nothing you can do about it.
The Grey Lady got one thing right: Truth is now more important than ever. In the United States and in Venezuela. And when journalists and news outlets are called “enemies of the people,” reasonable people must panic. To play it cool is to capitulate.