Memories of a Civil War Not Yet Avoided

Have you ever thought about where all of this is going? What have your theories been? Here, three stories about what Venezuela could have shown us by 2047.


CARACAS, 2047. Sebastián wakes up in the middle of the night after falling asleep watching TV in the living room. Or, well, hooked to the mind-sync, which he insists on still calling a “teevee”, word that his kids find hopelessly dad-like.

He crosses the living room and looks at the maqueta Rosa, his oldest, made. He doesn’t know why teachers still force kids to do these: half of the time the parents end up doing it for them on the 3-D printer. They were asked to recreate a historical moment and Rosa, to Sebastián and his wife’s surprise, chose the Storming of Miraflores.

“Can’t you pick something easier to make?”

“But I don’t want something easy, I want to make something that matters.”

Who knows where all this historiographical zeal came from. Her grandparents, maybe. Sebastián was too young; he only knows this stuff from his parents’ stories too: when Maduro banned all opposition parties, how they went on working underground, how the regime would hunt them down and torture them while car bombs went off here and there around the city, which each side blamed on the other. They’re just stories to him, shards from a half-digested history book.

What Sebastián does remember is how his parents looked worn down, as if they never had enough sleep, and adults talking about politics all the time, but under their breath. Other things seemed normal because he’d never known a different life: eating nothing but rice and fried eggs for months on end, living locked-in, only going out when they absolutely needed to.

To this day, he stills feels shivers when the sun goes down.

The maqueta has a shoebox presidential palace in the middle with a prominent balcony where red plastilina people, with little marks that vaguely draw red jackets, look with gaping mouths as blue plastilina protesters break the gate and the frontline are shot down by blocky green plastilina soldiers barricaded around the palace. It’s a delightfully twisted cross between La Bastille and Gumby.

They were asked to recreate a historical moment and Rosa… chose the Storming of Miraflores.

He won’t hem in Rosa’s enthusiasm by telling her it’s all make-believe. But he knows it is. Like the Bastille, the Storming of Miraflores was a minor incident turned symbolic milestone only years later, to serve a political agenda. President El Aissami and his clique were long gone by the time the crowds turned up to pick the palace clean. They’d scattered off to Cuba, Russia, the Caribbean…wherever their loot could buy them sanctuary.

Nobody mentions the tortured run-up to that 2022 collapse: the martial law period, the austerity years, or the files declassified years later showing half of the nominal opposition had been on a SEBIN payroll all along. And nobody mentions the chaos that followed it: the coup attempts, the second bout of hyperinflation, the Colombian occupation of San Cristobal, how all the criminal gangs today started out back then. It’s all bees scrubbed out of the history books.

“It doesn’t look good in a diorama, I guess,” he thinks to himself, helping Rosa color in the pools of blood around the defenders with a red Sharpie.

A memory of his childhood comes flooding back to him.

It’s Christmas Day and he’s 8 or 9. He’d been hearing explosions for days, but always far off, always abstract seeming. But that day, as his mom drove towards the UN Humanitarian Center for their rations, it happened right there. Just ahead of them. 30 meters, maybe. The shockwave lifted their car up off the ground, though aside from some cuts they weren’t hurt. What hurt was what came next: the sight of mangled bodies, somebody’s left hand just strewn on the ground. And the smell of flesh, burning, a kind of chemical parrilla he could’ve handled if he hadn’t been so fucking hungry himself.

He walks off to the bathroom, splashes water on his face, then turns to the kitchen to pour himself a mango juice. He drinks it in one gulp, washes the glass, then goes upstairs, wondering if the flashback will bring on the nightmares he struggled with for years.

That night. Before going to bed, he checks on Rosa and Lorena, his youngest. Both are deep asleep, softly lit by the dim, dark orange night light.

President El Aissami and his clique were long gone by the time the crowds turned up to pick the palace clean.

Sebastián broods on this. He’s glad that neither of his daughters will never have to live, in the flesh, the misery of his childhood. By the time they were born this was all decades in the past. The country had slowly, painfully regained a sense of normality. Maybe sanitizing the past is just part of that process. He goes back downstairs and has one last look at Rosa’s maqueta. He picks up a red marker, and adds a bit more blood.  

Unión, Paz y Trabajo

NEW YORK CITY, 2047. Sebastián sits in a booth in the far back of the restaurant, checking his messages again and again as he waits for The Guy. The last message is from Angie, his now-ex wife, telling him she droned all his stuff from their apartment in Staten Island to his brother Santiago’s house in Lisbon.

He recalls their last fight, four months ago, during her birthday party. Someone from her job at NYU made some remarks he couldn’t let go of. “It’s not just a job, Seb. You’re obsessed! Could you just shut up about Venezuela for one evening?” she asked.

Once he realized that he couldn’t, he knew it was over.

Seb has written three books about Venezuela. All three lost money. He doesn’t mind, though. He doesn’t like to admit it but he wrote them for himself. It’s his own tortuous triptych. An exercise to understand the country that he hasn’t seen in 30 years but still, reluctantly, calls his.

The first and less polished of the three, A Constitutional War, focused on the 2017 debacle. He now feels it was too emotional, almost melodramatic. The Alto Mando putting the big, fat, oaf on a night flight to Managua while claiming to save chavismo’s democratic legacy (ha!) as they made shady deals with some now-forgotten oppo figureheads.

It was like a bad parody of the Betancourt years. Clowns to the left, jokers to the right. And everyone alzao. A decade of car bombs and kidnappings later, finally, peace. Beijing-funded military-approved peace, granted, but peace nonetheless. It was impossible for him not to feel some sort of nostalgia, or whatever the French call it, as he wrote the book.

“It’s not just a job, Seb. You’re obsessed! Could you just shut up about Venezuela for one evening?”

Sebastián looks outside, where 8th and West 23rd street meet. He’s starting to worry about The Guy. Not many defect these days; he knows this is huge. Cabinet-level huge. Perhaps he can pitch the exclusive to The Washington-Huffington Post.

He checks on his messages: his current contact in Caracas, some bastard working at breiba/RT, tells him President Kardashian arrived to Caracas and is now at a reception held at the Marriot Gran Meliá. She’s the first US president to travel to Venezuela since Clinton. It’s historical, but Seb doesn’t know if he likes the kind of history that’s being written.

His second book, Lee Kuan Yew in the Tropics, was all about The Major General. He’s proud that it landed him on a couple of watch lists. He knows SEBIN would never do anything to him —they were subtle now compared to decades ago— but he’d always be watched, wherever he’d go.

The Major General was a goddamn genius, he had to grant him that. A natural-born pragmatist, he cracked the code: hitching Chávez’s rhetoric to a thriving market economy under tight military control. Sure, there’s a president, some obscure, geriatric career bureaucrat named Jaua, and a nominal opposition that’s allowed to keep a mayor’s office here and there. Window dressing. The real power is locked up in a series of pacts between Armed Forces and whoever Beijing and Moscow agree to appoint to run the Compañía Anónima Nacional de Industrias Mineras, Petrolíferas y de Gas. It’s not pretty, but it’s delivered two solid decades of economic growth. In Caracas, Chávez’s eyes peer down on you from every corner. His policies, not so much.

You won’t read about the Major General in any history book, though. He took care of that.

Sebastián asks for another Coke. The waitress tells him he has exceeded his legal soda limit and he groans something about nanny state before ordering mango liqueur. He has a bad feeling about The Guy now. He tries to call him but gets no answer.

The Guy is crucial for him. Back in the day, before the violence got intolerable and the Major General stepped in, The Guy was in the eye of the hurricane. Some amo del valle scumbag who managed to save the family farm by marrying into the red elite. He’d reinvented himself, turned himself into a pillar of the socialist establishment. He’d even been vice-president! It’s unbelievable what a well-connected wife can do for a guy.

Now that he’s old, broke, and dying, he wants to redeem himself. Sebastián chuckles at the thought. What an act of mercy. The Guy was impressed by his third book, Unión, Paz y Trabajo, about how the regime had consolidated by creating an unholy unions of communist slogans and capitalist governance. The Guy wants absolution, he wants it to be known that he did what he could to prevent the worst abuses. The same self-serving prick he always was.

The real power is locked up in a series of pacts between Armed Forces and whoever Beijing and Moscow agree to appoint…

Now average Venezuelans were content to make electronics for ten cents a day while believing the delusion they are a technological powerhouse as the red elite wallows in a sea of Dollars, Euros, Yuans, you name it. And they said it couldn’t be done after the oil ran out! They hadn’t counted on the Major General.

Sebastián checks his messages once more. He glimpses a notification from MSNCNN. A car accident at the Donald Trump International Airport in Long Island. One dead, several injured. Suspected car bomb. His eyes widen as he sees the name. It’s The Guy.

He drinks up his liqueur and asks for another. The methods may change but old habits die hard.

¡Viviremos y venceremos!

PARAPARA, 2047. Comandante Sebastián is on the run. Actually, nobody calls him “comandante” anymore, and he can’t really run. Most of his troops deserted him after the supply route coming down from San Juan de los Morros was cut off by units from the Frente Revolucionario “Robert Serra”. The rest slowly died off from dysentery.

He’s walking down a long, dusty road surrounded by chaparrals and bad weed. He’s wearing jeans, a red shirt with Zamora’s face stencilled on it —after all, he’s a Battle Unit Captain for the Ejército Popular, Revolucionario y Nacionalista “Ezequiel Zamora”— and a pair of Adidas he stole from a corpse in a raid to one of the UN camps near Villa de Cura.

He staggers along, dizzy. The fever he’s been nursing is messing with his head now. Nothing seems quite real.

On his shoulder hangs a Kalashnikov, still shining under the midday sun. It’s chipped and rusted but hell, it does the job.

He sees a faded road sign, It’s impossible to make out any name. It’s all the same, really. Most people around these parts have moved in masse to UN-safe havens, and the nearest one is way off in Yaracuy, two days march from here. Only those too crazy or stubborn to evacuate stay behind. Nowhere is safe.

Most of his troops deserted him after the supply route (…) was cut off (…) The rest slowly died off from dysentery.

Sebastián walks down the abandoned road, filled with modest houses whose doors lie on the ground in front of them and covered in graffiti claiming so-and-so house to FR “Robert Serra”, ERU “Hugo Chávez”, FLN “Francisco de Miranda”, ADUD “Rómulo Betancourt”,  FAL “María Corina Machado” and other dozen different armies too obscure to him.

He manages to find what used to be the main street and ends up in the town square. He notices mango trees ripe with fruit and helps himself to some on the ground. He eats them with despair, the juice runs down his chin and ends up on Zamora’s eye.

He hasn’t eaten anything in two days, but it doesn’t do much since he can barely keep anything in his stomach now. He doesn’t have a place to rest, he doesn’t have a place to go. He just continues.

He sits on a concrete bench and looks at the mango on his hand. Mangoes remind him of Santiago, his brother. 30 years ago, or a couple of regiments ago, they were taken from their parents to join an army, back when they still called them colectivos, back when there was still something like a government that was still fighting something like a coherent opposition. It was just after half the army barracks rose up against the government and the other half rose to support it and people were mobilized to dig trenches. It was just before the food ran out. Like all of it.

For months, they still little beyond chicken bone and beans shells to feed the troops with, and so that’s what they got. One night, fed up with scraps, Santiago tried to steal some mangoes from the supply truck. They shot him on the chest, tied his ankles with a wire and let his body drag from the truck’s fender, so everyone could see what happens with traitors.

Most people around these parts have moved in masse to UN-safe havens.

Sebastián shakes his head, trying not to fall asleep and get lost in dreams. He’s feeling feverish. He remembers hearing that there’d once been places like Hospitals around here where you could go, and specially trained men could do strange tests with your blood and tell you if it was malaria or dengue or yellow fever or something else. He didn’t really believe them. It’s all just fever.

Sebastián also hears the people who fight used to say they fought for big words. Liberty. Socialism. Dignity. Anti-imperialism. He can’t really bring himself to believe that either. He’s never met someone who wanted to die for a crazy word. He’s been fighting his whole life because fighting is how you stay alive.

But his troop fell apart, and his army’s command and control structure did too. Even if his radio worked, he wouldn’t know who to call, and even if he could regroup with his comrades, he wouldn’t know what they were regrouping for. Only that the enemy was out there, and if you were in a group you had a better chance of killing him before he killed you.

Sebastián is afraid that if he falls asleep, he won’t wake up. Something catches his attention. A humming. Someone humming. Someone singing.

“…niña que borda la blanca tela…”

He grabs his gun and with some difficulty manages to stand up and move on. He half thinks it’s not real, it’s just the fever putting bits of song in his mind. But the humming gets louder.

He’s been fighting his whole life because fighting is how you stay alive.

It’s no hallucination. It’s coming from a large, old building in front of the square. A school, maybe, or the town hall. Sebastián walks across the gate and through the main corridor, the wooden doors are forgotten debris in a corner, and finds the main hall where the singing comes from.

“…niña que tejes en tu telar…”

He sees an old man in a hammock with a cuatro on his belly, swinging back and forth as he croons to himself. The old man looks at him, not showing anything remotely close to fear or concern, just some curiosity and a deadpan, llanero acceptance of what they both recognize as an inevitability.

…bórdame el mapa de Venezuela…

“What are you singing?”

The old man stops swinging and smiles to himself.

“You know, I don’t remember anymore.”

Sebastián locks his rifle. Both he and the old man know there’s no other way.

“Any regrets?”

“Yeah, I voted once.” The old man laughs.

The bullets shatters the old man’s torso and make splinters out of the cuatro’s box. Blood flows, drips down the hammock’s holes and rains over the orange tiles.

Sebastián sits on the floor, in a corner. He wants to stay awake but can’t. The old man’s song stays in his head, unfinished. It bounces back and forth inside his boiling skull. Sebastián leans tight to his AK, his faithful companion, and tries to remain on guard.

Viviremos y venceremos, viviremos y venceremos, viviremos…”

He repeats the chant, as if it was a prayer to cast off bad spirits.

It’s useless.

As he lets himself get lost in the old llanero’s song, he lets his eyes close.

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.