Lines Blur Between Venezuelan Dystopia and Caribbean Cyberpunk
Farmers mining bitcoin, pranes using digital traces to kidnap people, hackers in shantytowns at the service of the secret police, chieftains paying for bots, biopolitical control and a presidential assassination attempt using drones. My country is a bad sci-fi movie.
Photos: Daniela. A. Parra
Right in the borders of Pueblo Nuevo, under the shadows cast by a brutalist building, it’s common to find barefoot teenagers holding blankets covered with cellphones over a decade old. They trade them for food or more electronic junk.
Meanwhile, soldiers on a nearby truck check citizen’s fingerprints and QR codes of carnets de la patria to sell regulated products. On the background, the rhythm of the trap bass (banned on radio stations and only available on the Internet) creates the perfect tropical cyberpunk atmosphere, where people talk about buying bananas with cryptocurrencies or electronic money transfers.
The perfect tropical cyberpunk atmosphere, where people talk about buying bananas with cryptocurrencies or electronic money transfers.
In Venezuela, the lack of access to basic services is becoming more frequent. Water and transportation may not be easy to find, but technology and the expansion of the digital era represent a fundamental part in Venezuelans’ lives. It is also one of the main devices used by chavismo for propaganda and control, as it’s a space without any defined legislation, a fertile wasteland for illegality.
The captahuellas, a biometric control implemented by the State to regulate food, subsidies and services, aims to turn the human body into a sign over. On her paper “The Body as Data”, the Venezuelan lawyer and activist Marianne Díaz says: “Biometry aims to delimit a space for legality and illegality, allowing the State to establish the boundaries between the ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’, (…) while providing a social benefit (…). The main purpose for implementing this type of system is the creation of limits of exclusion to grant or deny people’s rights”, thus violating not only the autonomy over our own body, but coercing us into surrendering to these mechanisms because otherwise, we would become pariahs of the system.
The crisis has restrained Venezuelans’ access to technology, while increasing the fear to acquire it.
As I walk through a crowded street, I lean in front of an informal stand covered with broken cellphones, burned out electric stoves and light bulbs. I ask one of the boys who polishes touchscreens if I can take a picture of him. He says no, holding my gaze with a sharp gesture of reprobation: clearly, most of the spare parts he’s working with are stolen. However, I dare to ask one more question: “What’s your newest device?”, “Samsung S5, unrestricted” he replies. It’s a 2014 mobile. The economic crisis has restrained Venezuelans’ access to technology, while increasing the fear to acquire it due to the risk of being robbed or murdered for it. The boy doesn’t hesitate to haggle its price in USD or Paypal transfers.
I leave through a narrow lane that leads to the 20th St., and I reach an old and small cybercafé. It has been days since I had a trustworthy internet connection in my apartment. I log in to check my email and my Twitter account. Next to me, a couple of teenagers divide the rows of old computers into two groups: The ones that play RPG online and the ones who check faucets. Both are payed activities.
A 16-year-old girl explains to me that faucets consist of watching publicity, making CAPTCHAs and reCAPTCHAs in exchange of small cryptocurrency based payments through virtual accounts. “Most pages pay in Satoshis (minimal unit of bitcoin) or in other currencies that we later change for dogecoins,” she says. These kids save cryptos in the cloud and trade them for strong fiat money. The girl assures that after a month doing it two or three times a week, she can make from 5 to 15 USD a month. In spite of severe governmental control and internet censorship, these kind of activities seem to determine many people’s survival.
In spite of severe governmental control and internet censorship, these kind of activities seem to determine many people’s survival.
Organized crime uses technology as well. Criminal gangs as big as El Tren del Llano, or El Tren de Aragua post pictures or videos exhibiting weapons, hiring sicarios and, in the worst of cases, performing tortures and executions in their personal Instagram or Facebook accounts. They also use the digital trail provided by some apps to kidnap and extort people. Drones (forbidden in the country since 2016) work as their new narcomulas and combat weapons. Kidnappers and arms dealers launder money through cryptos, shielded by the anonymity it offers.
I leave the cybercafé and try to return home. I wait for a perrera, a dangerous way of provisional transportation. The driver talks to another passenger about the price of gas. The driver and the passenger agree: We will all have to get the carnet de la patria in order to live through this.
I live in the eroded limits of a post-industrial dystopia, one that was promised as a tech paradise but, in the end, it has barely reached the 21st century because of its stubborn totalitarian anachronism. Of course, this looked better in books and movies. It’s terrifying to watch it happen while riding a kennel-truck, through a silent city that looks empty before night falls.
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