Our Fathers' Generation

Those of us in our 40s look on our Fathers’ Generation and can’t help but dwell on the failures and mistakes that set the stage for the catastrophe that’s befallen the country.

“I always feel we’ve been really hard on our fathers’ generation,” Carlos tells me, draining the last from a glass of whiskey, the ice still clanking in that familiar way.

This intrigues me.

“How do you mean?” I ask.

It’s not the kind of conversation you have before you’re deep into that third or fourth drink.

“Well, think about it,” he says, reaching out for the bottle. “Guys like you, me, in our early forties now, this was supposed to be our time.”

It’s not the kind of conversation you have before you’re deep into that third or fourth drink.

“If things had gone the way we always figured they would go when we were kids, the way they were supposed to go, we’be be reaching upper management now, climbing up from vice-ministerial rank to ministerial, eying that spot in the CEN, whatever. That’s what they raised us to do, right? But we lost all that. They lost that for us, they let these shitheads grab power and destroy the country.”

It’s a dramatically politically incorrect little riff, but also honest in a way we often don’t get to be in the public sphere.

Carlos went to the same elite school I went to: Los Arcos. We grew up around the same kind of people — for him in La Lagunita, for me in El Country. We both ended up having to get out, reluctantly. He’s doing great in the U.S.: brilliantly educated and just brilliant, he has a fantastic job for a household-name company that pays a ton of money. It’s hard to feel sorry for him —and to be sure, he’s not the complaining type. But there’s an awareness of loss here that’s not a complaint. More like the bitter recognition of an uncomfortable fact.

“It’s like, if they’d just taken better care of the country, if that generation had just done better, if they’d led with a little bit more competence and, marico, just awareness of the stakes…none of this needed to happen.”

His wistfulness mixes genuine horror at what’s happened to regular Venezuelans with regret over the social position he’ll now never get to hold. Married with kids who are way more gringo than they’ll ever be Venezuelan, he’s gradually made his peace with the thought that he never gets to go back…and neither do they.

I think back on my own upbringing, take another sip, and find myself hating myself for understanding him so completely. I know each family is different. I know my own experience is partial. I know not all of the fourth republic elite was like this. But I also know what I remember.

I remember the insouciance with which our class threw money around back in the 80s, when the generation-long downturn that brought the country to chavismo’s hands had just begun to take hold but before it had migrated high enough the socio-economic ladder to touch us.

I remember the clubby sense of unassailable privilege.

I remember the piñatas where each kid turned up with his/her own cargadora like something out of some tropical pre-k Gosford Park. I remember the trips abroad, sometimes on Viasa, other times on PanAm, which we used to see as a kind of derecho adquirido. I remember the multiple maids, the chauffeurs, the whole Venezuela Saudita lifestyle in its immense frivolity and utter blindness to its own social context.

Nobody has to tell me about this stuff: I lived it. I remember it, and I shudder.

“Chamo, my dad used to get a U.S. visa for the maid when we went stateside so someone would be there to take care of the kids during the trip…¿tú te quieres imaginar?”

He chuckles. He knows exactly what I’m talking about.

“Of course people resented the way they lived,” I tell Carlos. “Shit, I look back on it and I resent the way they lived…and I was one of them!”

La generación de nuestros papás fucked the country up to the point where a thing like Chávez was inevitable,” he says. “How can you not hate them for it at least a little bit?”

It’s a funny phrase, la generación de nuestros papás. You could gloss it either as our parents’ generation or our fathers’ generation, but if I’m honest I know he means our fathers: in the macho-dominated Venezuela of our childhood, there’s no question who was doing the fucking up.

I think back on the web of cosy family and clan relationships that got my own dad the cush contracts that generated the easy dollars that funded that insane lifestyle. His own business was construction —social housing, to be specific. He’d married the daughter of a director and key shareholder in the country’s biggest bank, so financing wasn’t a problem. And the interés social apartments he was building attracted fat petrodollar subsidies: política habitacional and all that.

Without much risk on either the financing or the customer side, he barely broke a sweat on his way to making tons of money. I suppose when all was said and done there were some shiny new affordable housing units to show for it, but I also know the balance between risk and reward he faced were obscene.

“Of course people resented the way they lived,” I tell Carlos. “Shit, I look back on it and I resent the way they lived…and I was one of them!”

He laughs.

Later that night, after I’ve put Carlos on a Uber back to his hotel, I stagger back into my kids’ room and watch them sleep for a few minutes. I wonder what Venezuela can ever really mean to them.

Now five and three, they’ve never been there.

I keep telling them they’re exactly as Venezuelan as they are Canadian, but I know I say it more to convince myself than them. Other than the mythical springhead of the arepa, they know Venezuela mostly as a place that generates stress for dad, whose job involves writing about it somehow.

I suppose White Russians faced something like this this sometime in the 1920s or 30s, Cubans in the 70s or 80s, and now, well now it’s our turn. The rational, thinking part of me knows they’re basically two little Canadians, that the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against them ever feeling Venezuela like their own. But I find it hard not to cry at the thought. And I find it hard not to rage all over again against la generación de nuestros papás, now not just for what they took from me, but for what they took from them.