Falling Into Line

I went to the heart of chavista territory to see why people voted red and played along with the dictatorship. My worst fear is that, eventually, we will all play along as well.

These people are hungrier and poorer by the day, and their faith in the abstraction of socialism is long gone. Maduro, to them, is a clown and there’s only contempt for the rest of the lot. Many don’t even like Chávez. They may deny it, they’d rather keep quiet than admit they messed up, but deep down they know El Comandante screwed them.

They see it in the mirror as they grow thin, and I see it too, as I walk up the stairs of my building, greeting neighbors as equals, and not as foes. That’s the thing with crises, sooner or later you have to hold yourself accountable for your decisions, and people here, in Guarenas, really chose wrong. This has been my home for the past ten years and, during that period, I’ve been surrounded by people who still have portraits of Chávez in their homes. They voted Maduro into office and will deny that there are political prisoners or Human Rights violations in this country.

Last Sunday, election day, I asked them about the election itself, which I never do, just to see why they supported this government to the point of self-sabotage. My neighborhood, Menca de Leoni, brimmed with activity. There were Puntos Tricolor every fifty meters or so. As the bus made its way through the street, I could see children playing and people strolling around while others lined up for their carnet and their bono Niño Jesús near voting centers. Maduro, Jorge Rodríguez and Erika Farías promised a reward for those who voted red, and they mostly came through in Guarenas, so people were in high spirits.

My closest neighbors are three women. Two have dogs and we’ve found a way to bond by avoiding arguments and talking about their animals and lives. This has given me an understanding of systems like CLAP and the carnet de la Patria as successful political tactics for the regime.

¡Hoooola, mijo! ¿Y la abuela?

Sooner or later you have to hold yourself accountable for your decisions, and people here really chose wrong.

That’s how Libia, the first woman in my floor, greets me every time she sees me. She’s about 60, but the bones are so prominent beneath her skin that she looks much older. A housewife living off a pension with her two children (both of them with cognitive disabilities), she’s the only source of income in their household. She voted for the criminals whose actions reduced her chances of survival; if she falls ill, if anything happens to her, her two sons will be completely helpless. Now, the CLAPs are the only way she can even eat or provide for her children. When I asked her about Sunday’s elections, she just shrugged. “If it weren’t for Chávez, I wouldn’t have my pension. But I didn’t vote this time, politicians are all the same.”

The second woman, Doris, lives with her son and daughter. She’s a nurse at Guarenas’ main hospital and although I’ve come to like her personally, I have no illusions about her principles; she’s the building’s CLAP coordinator. She collects the money every month and brings the boxes to the building. “I left home at 5:00 a.m. (today) and got back at midnight. It was a lot of work. We went to each building with wheelchairs to help the old and sick.” I originally thought she only worked with the CLAP, but she’s also a member of the UBCh and Unamujer. She’s not a member of the local communal council because “they never do anything. Back when we worked with Corpomiranda, they offered the council a chance to manage the whole thing, but food started to go missing, they didn’t want to work, CLAP took over and now they’re angry at us.” She worked for Héctor Rodríguez’ campaign and also for Luis Figueroa, the new mayor. “We work really hard for the community and they must do the same” she says, utterly convinced.

The third woman, Dilia, is a full-time housewife. Her daughter and son-in-law are the breadwinners of the house; my sister has a better relationship with them than I do, but we treat each other cordially. She’s a member of the local Consejo Comunal and the building’s unofficial management, and she’s not doing that bad, even if it’s been a while since she’s thrown a party. “I don’t vote. I voted for Chávez but not for Maduro or his people. And the opposition’s nearly as bad.”

They all fear that they might lose access to their “benefits” if they don’t have the carnet, a fear more than justified since the government has been making explicit threats lately.

“When Chávez was alive” she adds, “he had things under control, but these people don’t know what they’re doing. The CLAP arrives whenever they want and the boxes have less products each time.”

However, she still got her carnet. “Just in case I need it. We never know.”

Despite the difference in contexts and motivations, they all fear that they might lose access to their “benefits” if they don’t have the carnet, a fear more than justified since the government has been making explicit threats lately. I don’t condone these people’s support for the regime, but I understand. Supporting the system of control that will guarantee your demise is completely counter-intuitive, but the connection to crime, to high-scale embezzlement or drug-trafficking, isn’t evident to them. This is a circumstance unrelated to their survival and the story repeats everywhere now. It’s no longer chavistas who depend on this type of blackmail anymore.

Chavismo has always been good at using violence and turning everything into a weapon. They’ve weaponized hunger now, and they’ve been successful in stomping down public demonstrations. That doesn’t mean they’re more popular than a year ago, or that they’ve regained people’s trust; people are just running out of options, and they will do whatever they must to provide for their families. We may want nothing to do with carnets de la patria or CLAPs, but a lot of people just don’t have a choice.

Of course they take the carnet and the grocery box. Of course they promise to vote for PSUV candidates, even if they don’t. Some, like Doris, still believe in the revolution after all these years and actively participate in the government’s schemes. Others have never refused the government’s gifts and figure this is no time to start. And if the government plan succeeds, even dissidents will learn to fall in line.