Maslow's Pernil

December's pork-leg riots left middle class Venezuelans seething in contempt of people who care more about a Christmas pork roast than basic freedom and democracy. They never learned Maslow's lesson: when you're hungry, nothing else matters.

“In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.”

-Abraham Maslow

In Venezuela, a great part of the population has been stepping back for too long, and December’s pernil protests hint that it won’t be an option for much longer.  Over the last week, reports of protests across working class areas across the country have been flooding social networks.

Unlike previous bouts of discontent, however, this time the people on the street are disenchanted chavistas, people who openly admit they voted for the Government’s candidates in the recent municipal elections because they were promised subsidized food, toys for their kids and —emblematically— the traditional Venezuelan Christmas leg of ham, or pernil.

It’s no fun to be added to the long list of marks the Venezuelan government has stiffed.

Protesting because the Government defaulted on its payment for your vote represents a new nadir for our civic culture. It’s easy to understand why people are enraged at the sight of this; but as much as I’d love to see these people standing in front of the Helicoide asking for the release of political prisoners, or at the doors of the Central Bank urging for desperately overdue economic reforms; I know it’s a pipe dream.

A hungry person will have to eat before he even grasps complex concepts such as personal freedom.

Not because they’re stupid or lambucios, but because they don’t really have an option.

Abraham Maslow, the great American psychologist, famously arranged human needs along a pyramid, with the most basic physiological needs such as breathing, sleeping or eating being at the bottom and the drive for more complex achievements (financial security, family belonging, self-esteem, respect, confidence and finally, autonomy and personal fulfillment) higher up. He defined the top of the pyramid as “self-actualization”.

The idea is simple: goals are sought sequentially, from the bottom of the pyramid up. Maslow argues that in order to even aspire to complex needs, an individual must satisfy his lower order requirements first.

A hungry person will have to eat before he even grasps complex concepts such as personal freedom, to say nothing of democracy. Chavismo understand this, and has systematically exploited it.

A great portion of Venezuelan society must struggle day after day to find a meal. It gets harder and harder. Leaving the subsidized, government-monopolized CLAP boxes, as their only option in order to eat.

Coincidence? Far from it. This is the result of a coldly calculated state policy with two clear objectives: first, while being the sole provider of “affordable” food, the Government is seen as the sole entity able to feed the hungry, making look an eventual regime change as a catastrophic scenario to some; but secondly and most importantly, it keeps a majority of the country trapped at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid; thinking only about when the next CLAP box will arrive, leaving them no time or energy to wish for anything else, much less actually do something to get it.

That’s why recent protests are relevant. They prove the Government’s inability to satisfy the most basic of needs carries political costs. The people protesting these days may not care about having a functional parliament, or an independent justice system; they don’t care if Maduro can give them that; but now they know that the current regime is not even able to give them food, as it promised less than a month ago. They must understand that without deep economic changes, no one will.

The French Revolution didn’t start with people asking for freedom, equality or fraternity; it started with hungry masses asking for affordable bread.

With a collapsing oil industry, completely obliterated by widespread corruption, crippling hyperinflation, and the the financial floodgate shut by default, the government will find making good on the bribes it’s promised harder by the day, forcing it to rely more and more on controlled looting and eventually, repressive violence. Just like it couldn’t give them a pork leg for this holidays, the Government soon won’t be able to give them a CLAP box, or anything at all.

The French Revolution didn’t start with people asking for freedom, equality or fraternity; it started with hungry masses asking for affordable bread. Still, it ended up reshaping the world. These protests should be seen as an opportunity for a heavily beaten opposition who just admitted its fatal disconnect from the people’s needs to finally make those who think the Government can keep this country running, that the time when they just let everyone starve to death will come, probably sooner than later.