TWENTY Years of Plague

The plague is not made on a human scale, and so men always say that the plague is unreal, a bad dream that must pass. But it doesn’t always pass, and from one bad dream to the next, it’s the men who pass.

Photo: Ramon Espinosa / ModoGráfico

To Venezuelans, December 6th, 1998 is like 9-11 or the Kennedy Assassination to Americans. If you’re old enough, you remember where you were that night, when Hugo Chávez addressed the nation having just been elected president. For my part, I was in London, in a miniscule student flat in Battersea, resting before a night of coursework at the London School of Economics.

It was the days before streaming this or Twitter that, so I didn’t get to see the speech live. But I did field a string of calls from friends and family members trying to make sense of it. “Quico, all I know is a big change is coming here,” my sister Ana said. “It’s not going to be normal.”

Ana knew what was coming was different. But she didn’t foresee a plague.

The next morning I headed off to my Social Policy Planning lecture. I’d set off for graduate school in England reasoning that, ultimately, Venezuela’s problems were serious but manageable. It was a rich country, and the problems of structural adjustment were tough but not insurmountable. Eventually, I thought, people would get it that what Venezuela needed was a minimally functioning social protection system — just the rudiments of a working welfare state to bolster the democratic regime’s legitimacy.

Plagues, it turns out, always catch you unaware.

So I spent months knee-deep on actuarial tables on social insurance schemes, reading up on pensions policy design, unemployment insurance systems, figuring out how you built a social safety net that could shield people from the risks inherent in capitalism without bankrupting the state. I’d convinced myself those were the skills Venezuela would be most in need of in the next twenty years, the area where I could really make my mark.

I’ve often revisited that choice and smirked at my own naïveté. I might have studied Venutian geology and not wound up with a less relevant set of skills. If I’d followed Susana Raffalli and studied humanitarian intervention strategies instead, I’d have been left with something substantive to offer.  

But at the time, the notion that the kinds of strategies it takes to prevent children in war-torn African countries from starving would be of relevance to Venezuela within my lifetime would’ve seemed morbid and absurd.

Thinking Venezuela would turn into a normal developing country just a few technical reforms away from breaking through to mass middle class prosperity was optimistic, for sure, but well within the range of the conventionally expectable. Plagues, it turns out, always catch you unaware.

And that’s been the other, dismal outcome of these last twenty years: the unyielding regularity with which yesterday’s worst-case-scenario has become today’s reality, the way yesteryear’s paranoid ramblings have unfailingly become the new-normal.

No vale, yo no creo.

Or: it can’t last. It’s too stupid.

The phrase comes to me from Albert Camus, by way of Ibsen Martínez, who wrote one of the most devastating columns of the Chávez era about it, all the way back in 2002. Camus’s insights are worth quoting at length:

Plagues are, in fact, quite common, but it’s hard to believe in them when they are about to strike. There have been in the world as many plagues as wars, and yet, plagues and wars always catch people by surprise.

When a war starts, people say ‘this can’t last, it’s too stupid.’ And, without a doubt, war is obviously too stupid, but that doesn’t keep it from lasting.

Stupidity always insists; you would realize that if you weren’t always thinking like yourself. Our countrymen, in this respect, were like everyone else. They were human. They didn’t believe in plagues.

The plague is not made on a human scale, and so men always say that the plague is unreal, a bad dream that must pass.

But it doesn’t always pass, and from one bad dream to the next, it’s the men who pass, and the humanists first of all, because they fail to take precautions.

Our countrymen were no more guilty than others; they forgot their humility, that’s all.

They thought everything was possible for them, which meant, as a matter of course, that all plagues were impossible.

And how could they have thought of the plague, which suppresses the future, their movements and their discussions?

They thought themselves free and no one could be free so long as there were plagues.

Twenty years ago, I thought myself free. And no one could be free so long as there’s a plague.