The Distorting Power of Opacity

Depriving the public of the access to accurate and timely information is one of the cornerstones of domination and fear. But in a failed state like Venezuela, even self-proclaimed democrats and international institutions use it for their own ends.

Photo: Federico Parra/AFP retrieved

Imagine waking up in the morning, turning on the TV and, while Twitter is exploding with news of a military uprising somewhere in your city, here the screen shows you a morning show. You change the channel, but still nothing. You keep zapping, pausing for a while in a station with news on, but they’re talking about stuff in another continent.

You give up and prepare for work because you have to, even if something huge is apparently happening out there.

As soon as you leave your home’s wifi, the internet connection dies. The phone operator pumped service fees without telling you, so your balance wasn’t enough to renew your prepaid data plan. You’re heading out on the blind, but the streets are calm, so you venture to the subway, hoping it’ll be open.

Imagine waking up in the morning, turning on the TV and, while Twitter is exploding with news of a military uprising somewhere in your city.

Tickets are no longer required but half of the turnstiles are out of order, so everyone’s struggling to get past the few that work and rush to the two trains waiting, but the crowd’s so big, you can’t reach the doors. You wait for the speakers to report what’s going on, but there are no employees in the station.

The other passengers are talking about the uprising in hushed voices, it’s impossible to tell facts from rumors. The air is stifling, the trains aren’t moving, you look around to check how many stations you have to travel to see if you can make it on foot, but maps of subway lines have long vanished from the walls.

You can’t stand it anymore, so you squeeze out of the station. The streets changed, crowds are hasting through the sidewalks because they couldn’t use the subway, either. You could wait for a bus, but none is coming; there are no taxis either, and only a few vehicles. You ask what’s happening, but everyone’s as perplexed as you. You try calling your boss, but phone lines are down as well.

You give up and start your way back home. You were planning to have breakfast near your office, so you’re hungry and there’s an open diner, but since prices change daily, you can’t check what they are today. You just give the cashier your debit card and pay attention to see how much it’ll be.

Then you get home, only to find there’s no power. There’s a power-rationing plan, but outages just roll whenever they want, your only option is to wait until, finally, your phone goes crazy with WhatsApp messages and Twitter updates. Apparently, nobody could get to work or school, the city’s on lockdown, protests are blazing and you can’t find a single decent piece of information about the alleged uprising. Is it over? What was it about? Who was involved? Official accounts are silent and other political leaders are spamming propaganda.

A few weeks ago, when the electricity started failing for real, the National Assembly set up a situation room to inform the people about the country’s status, but they’ve since forgotten about it. No way of telling if the climate of unrest will normalize any time soon, so you and everyone you know are in the dark.

Knowledge is control.

If any of this sounds outlandish to you, be grateful. We Venezuelans live it every day.

This is opacity, an asphyxiating cloud that corrodes and distorts reality, a sticky web of shadows that conceals events, twisting truth and leaving society helpless and vulnerable. All dictatorships censor media outlets and harass the press; they force TV and radio stations to either ignore the facts or go off the air; they threaten, imprison or assault anyone searching for answers, because knowledge is control.

And Venezuela isn’t your garden-variety dictatorship, it’s a failed state run by mobsters with even less inclination to let people know what they’re doing. This, in turn, expands the shroud of silence and confusion, as it forces other actors, even those nominally opposed to the regime or bound by strict codes of transparency and neutrality, to play their cards close to the chest while citizens stumble in the maze.

Whenever a politician calls for military intervention or engages in negotiations without explaining to the people what’s at stake, they’re fostering opacity. Whenever a public official lies, withholds information or fails to report the situation to the public, they’re diminishing trust and putting lives at risk. If a foreign institution working in the country doesn’t provide data of its activities, it’s contributing to the process of degeneration, even if its original intent is to help.

Opacity reduces our ability to find the switches and turn them back on. We know things are bad, but we’re not sure just how bad they actually are. Civil society and digital outlets do their best to keep us in the loop, but it’s not enough.

If we don’t know the problem, how can we fix it?