The Year We Changed Forever, and Some

The last semester of 2019 and the first of 2020 will be remembered for its breakdown of our political illusion and the unavoidable effects of the pandemic. What's ahead of us, then?

Venezuela's 2020 confirmed 2019's trend: we have no government and no state, so we carry on in a nation out of oil.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

We’re experiencing something unprecedented, a catastrophe that’s hitting every Venezuelan, wherever we are, whichever our position may be, in one way or the other. The country is devastated, as the dream for reconstruction went up in smoke, and the pandemic fell on top of it. All this is true. But in darker times, new things begin to shape up and that makes them “interesting,” as the Chinese curse says.

I gathered what some Venezuelans think about these last two semesters, the same length of time during which Cinco8 has existed. They all work in different fields and my interest in their works or writings brings them here. The intention is for us to have a better look on where we stand now, what’s going on beyond the evident, and what we can do to move forward. Because we have no other choice but to move forward. 

The Petro-State Is Over

For sociologist Edgardo Lander, the most important thing is that the oil-based state that provided for everyone is no longer possible, and people know it. We’re standing in front of two transitions: one that should lead to the recovery of politics and the Constitution, violated systematically by both extremes of this confrontation, as a basis for a national agreement, and one that would lead us to a post-rental, post-extraction society. What we have is a Mining Arc that blows away any evil that the oil extraction economy ever did, and an abandonment of politics just as the majority understood that the other sidethe one they don’t likewon’t just disappear.

A Shattered Trust

Sociologist Paula Vázquez Lezama claims that old fractures pile on to the new ones and the breach of trust is deeper than ever, not just towards institutions; it’s microsocial now, within family members, and even interpersonal. The thing is that defense, the protection of oneself and the fight against the epidemic depend on, basically, trust. She sees, however, opportunities: the recognition of the petro-state’s limits comes up in the midst of a debate about replacing fossil fuels, and the awareness of the relationship between our own hunger and the limitations we have to produce foodleading some groups to produce without subsidies from the state. The corruption linked to the importation business led to its obvious failure while it’s evident that agriculture and ecology can’t be discarded for ideological reasons. She’s deeply concerned about the surge of an extreme right movement that looks to annihilate anything involving collective concerns just because it’s a reminder of chavista stereotypes.

The World Can No Longer Deny It

The data given to me by Feliciano Reyna shows that the world can no longer deny what’s going on in Venezuela. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights reports and documents our reality; the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights developed the Follow up Mechanism to the human rights situation and the International Criminal Court could soon point to individual responsibilities. Although coronavirus helps the continuation of repression and it deepens the precariousness of four years of humanitarian emergency, Feliciano believes that the inability of the government to respond could be an opportunity to reach agreements that allow a considerable increase in international humanitarian aid and a re-focus of the political conflict.

The Authoritarian Inertia

As far as political expert Guillermo Tell Aveledo is concerned, this year we reached a sort of authoritarian inertia: The PSUV-state moves forward, without a strategic change in the political and social sectors that oppose it. But, in this standstill, the West is unflinching on its rejection of authoritarianism. This crisis should’ve started a serious and postponed debate about the validity of 2019’s route. We’re in a similar, but worsened, situation as we were in 2005, with a deepened oppression, but without an electoral scenario or internal mobilizing to motivate anyone. Some are hoping that the virus will force change, but they don’t count on it; it’s one of the many existential threats that loom over Venezuelans. Political parties and society need to converge again with the sole purpose of promoting change, which could take longer than we hoped for. The democratic values that inspire these parties and a majority of Venezuelans are still clear, but we must take action from inside our own country.

The Diaspora Will Enrich Venezuelan Society

Philosopher and anthropologist Alejandro Reig says that the growing integration of people in exile—of different ages, classes, and trades—in activities and productive jobs in their new societies, is good news. This contradicts the wrong and elitist claim that Venezuelan migration is “more prepared, educated, and enterprising (than others)”; there are Venezuelan migrants from all walks of life, and the fact that they’re most of the time enterprising and adapting is a common denominator in all diasporic communities. Despite the dramatic and tearing circumstance that has pushed us through different paths, this will have a rewarding effect on the new Venezuelan culture in the mid-term, which will be made up of those who left, those who stayed, the transnational contact between both parties, and those who will come back.

Alliances May Come from the Destruction of the Amazon

For biologist Alejandro Álvarez Iragorry, the environmental crisis in Venezuela tends to fade from public discourse, as it has disappeared from the government’s speech and action. But the rejection towards the destruction by mining (which chavismo can no longer deny) keeps growing, along with an increased international interest in it, displayed by the last two reports published by Michelle Bachelet. We could ask for international aid for specific projects on environmental protection, biodiversity management, territorial order, economy based on the sustainable use of biodiversity and pollution by mercury management. It’s also very important to create welfare projects for the indigenous communities that have been affected; there’s still human capital with great professional training who are committed to the country, so political leaders should be aware that we are a megadiverse nation. We need to reach a great national agreement for environmental sustainability, and we must listen to science. 

There’s No Education Without Teachers

NGO Fe y Alegría’s chairman, Manuel Aristorena, says that we’ve lost the school routine and that’s bad news with the number of teachers quitting. Schools are closing down without teachers, resources, or students, and it’s the most vulnerable groups who pay the consequences. However, in the last few years, interesting alliances have been made. Universities, such as UCAB—Caracas and Guayana branches—are willing to ease things for those who want to study education. Teachers from public and subsidized schools work hard, looking for other sources of income without quitting the classroom. They have to walk to school because there’s no public transport or cash for the fare. They bring out their best skills to deal with distance learning. It’s inspirational what our teachers have done to tend to their students and, although we have no data, we do know that families have also helped their children with school work. School on the radio is transmitted every day through the 23 Fe y Alegría radio stations, and Sin Salón accompanies education students with partial on-site classes. 

Forcing the Quarantine is Like Controlling Prices

For economist Ronald Balza Guanipa, savings and resourcefulness have allowed some people to start new businesses. All the transformations that the pandemic has brought are happening under a death threat, but this stir, paradoxically, has been a good thing: the entire world has had to recognize the importance of investing in scientific research and health care, and that the limitations the public has to access health care services and medicine depend on those who manage the resources. In Venezuela, however, although we had time to organize resources, nothing was done. We needed to prepare our hospitals, to protect our healthcare workers, to spread more information. The punitive measures to try to enforce the quarantine can end up complicating things even further, as much as the price and exchange controls did in the economic arena, with similar results.

Resistance Pivots on Culture

Writer Ana Teresa Torres underlines the tenacity of those still producing cultural events, in spite of all the barriers. Internet connection is the worst in Latin America, and yet theatre, movies, courses, conferences and concerts are still shown. It’s precisely in disaster, with the diaspora, and with so many deficiencies, that Venezuelan society seems to understand the value of culture as a pivot for resistance and moral strength. This is why, although we all understand our responsibility and we know our abilities and our limitations, it’s important for private institutions to renew their trust in cultural actions and support them as much as possible.

The Arepa is Mainstream Now

Communications expert Manuel Silva Ferrer has no doubt that the most important event for Venezuelan culture this past year has been the departure of DirecTV, which left us without international television—and without trusted sources of audiovisual information. However, he underlines that the government’s desire to wipe out, or control anything they don’t understand or is out of their control, has had to face a resistance culture, which continues to move forward in spite of all the difficulties, both inside and out of our country. The support for Venezuelan culture from the private sector has been all but a leap of faith, turning into an almost spiritual feat. You could write an entire book, he says, but he highlights a relevant phenomenon: the emergence of Venezuelan gastronomy on a global scale, headed by the arepa.

Art Isn’t Just About Exhibitions and Selling Pieces

Artists and gallery experts Melina Fernández and Luis Romero think it’s good news to see that spaces like ABRA, which they run, manage to stick to their schedule in Caracas. Last year, they opened thirteen exhibitions and participated in four international fairs. Other galleries also made huge efforts to offer a high quality and coherent program. Carmen Araujo Arte even dared to open a second location. The Yanomami artist Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, who they represent, was taken to three art fairs: Arco in Madrid, Arteba in Buenos Aires, and Artissima in Turin. In Arco, Hakihiiwe won the Illy Sustentable Art award, and in Artissima, the Premio Refresh Irinox award. His work has been acquired by important institutions, such as the British Museum in London, which included him in their permanent exhibit, and by the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros collection. However, they believe that our country needs smaller, but high quality projects, like El Bloque in Mérida, by María Niño and Fabio Rincones, or PortaEspacios by Raúl Rodríguez. Ideas that bring along cohesion and feelings of belonging, as well as alternate education projects. All those involved in the art system must take on responsibilities and commitments.

Micro-Processes Also Provoke Autonomy

Cheo Carvajal says that, in Caracas, empty shells to protect the money of an elite minority turn up. There we have bodegones, a brazen expression normalizing the ever growing social gap. In a country where power outages are recurrent, a section of the Guaire River in Las Mercedes is still adorned by a cascade of Christmas lights, in July. But inside the contradicting duality between the landscape and social life, there are processes emerging in economics and social organization. Modest bodegas open their doors, along with small businesses and a “network of urban water springs”: stores where they only sell drinking water. The persistent and not so silent articulation of citizens builds networks that allow them to bear the situation. Organizations that used to be on the other side of the street reach out to raise their voice against madness at the Mining Arc in the Orinoco,  FAES operations, attacks on our cultural heritage, our dire working conditions, and the urban deforestation. Apart from these exercises in civil connection, the pandemic and fuel crisis has spurred the use of bicycles in Caracas and other cities. We have to back micro-processes that generate autonomy. To think collectively and act from within our reach. Map resources and needs.

The Weight of Life Lessons

My trusted philosophical consultant, Carlos Ortiz, believes that many have changed the focus of their anguish in the last year. The real fear of death entering their house has forced people to look at their homes and their relationships in a more conscious way. Maybe we’re in the same place as we’ve always been, but in the hearts of those who suffer, or lives to the fullest, life experience has more weight than the abstract. People have become more sensitive to the serious ecological problems, or the work of millions of people who live stuck at the bottom of the social pyramid. He questions whether this might have an immediate political impact but, hopefully, people will start to take better care of themselves. They  have to reconnect with their own self and their affections, which will help them deal in a healthy way with pain and anguish, which aren’t the only significant emotions, or the most important ones.