How to Live in a Country in Constant Crisis

While people in the U.S. are on the brink of an explosive political conflict and brace for years of unrest in a divided country full of painful unresolved issues, a Venezuelan citizen shares what he learned during decades of denial, misinformation and polarization

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Personally, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t live in crisis in one form or another. I grew up, studied, became a professional and began my academic life in Venezuela, a country where ‘la crisis’ began almost four decades ago and hasn’t ended since.  

Sure, what the word means and the feelings it elicits have changed over time. First, it was a monetary and budgetary crisis, then it was a protracted social crisis, and eventually a political crisis—a crisis of institutions, political parties and governance. A crisis of values and even a spiritual crisis. La crisis was everywhere.  

One episode after another brought about more and more changes to the extent that what was ‘crisis’ and, per se, transient and contingent, became permanent.

Thus, we began experiencing different processes at a personal and collective level to cope with those new waves of reality, trying to make sense of the changes so our sense of self and belonging wouldn’t disappear in the process.  In the beginning it was denial—sure this can’t last forever, ‘no hay mal que dure cien años’ (no evil lasts a hundred years!)—then it was bargaining and relativization (not everything is bad!); then it was disgruntled acceptance (well, it’s bad, but what can we really do?).  

Some, though, suffered more from the crisis than others. A big part of the resentment that accumulated those years lied precisely on the reality and perception of who was bearing the brunt of the crisis as it unfolded. And thus came protests, and demonstrations, and strikes, and eventually riots, and coup attempts, and a president removed, and a collective sense of institutional decay.

What was, was no longer there. What was to come, wasn’t here yet.  

The Emotional Divide

It was against this backdrop that the Bolivarian Revolution took place and our attempt to move beyond the crisis began. Yet, not everyone could sail to the promised sea of happiness on the same terms. Someone had to be blamed, and anyone who sided with those who were blamed should be equally blamed and excluded from participating in the exercise of (re)building the nation and leaving two decades of crisis behind… when that time comes, of course.  

Yet, doing this didn’t do away with the sense of crisis and collective malaise—it transformed it. From then on, we began experiencing the country’s unsteady, volatile and violent transformation in two main ways: one lived by chavistas, hopeful in their leader and project but in constant crisis because of the sense that, at any time, the internal/external, real/imaginary enemies of the Revolution could take everything away; and another mainly experienced by millions of Venezuelans in the opposition, struggling to stop the process of transformation and feeling that everyday could bring another change that affected them negatively.  

Beyond ideologies and personal positions about who Chávez was and what chavismo meant to Venezuela, perhaps this emotional divide was the deepest trench between chavistas and opositores. Each feeling blamed for each other’s suffering, in an environment of collective anxiety and dread. All of us engaged in a vicious circle that became self-referential, and is now becoming intergenerational, making it harder to escape or imagine a future premised on mutual recognition. Meanwhile, all of us with constant mixed feelings, the ups and downs of hope and disappointment that we have experienced in the midst of this process.

They Rewrite Past and Future, You Focus on the Present  

We didn’t do away with the crisis in the end. We moved on and made it part of our lives, over and over. We normalized it, just to see it emerging again, with new, more destructive phases, new stages that don’t seem to vanish. Worse, we created different narratives for the past and present, entrenching a rhetoric that could pave a way for mutual coexistence—a precondition to overcome this awful episode in our history.  

Most recently, the government has gone as far as destroying a sense of collective future—the most recent attempt to eliminate the crisis is to make it atemporal and to create a different imaginary that takes place nowhere (and definitely not here and now). The chavista project originally promised a different future based on a mixture of utopian ideology and populist grandstanding, and a politics of bottom-up popular participation that never truly happened. Maduro is doing away with this concept and, instead, seems to be embracing a project that doesn’t worry about changing the present and turning it into a better future.  Instead, it resides on crafting a narrative or performance of good governance and (unrealistic) achievements that doesn’t really exist but in rhetoric and imagery. 

In line with a world plagued by denialism, Maduro goes on TV and rehearses a response to the pandemic that performs a country that doesn’t exist. The official discourse shows authorities in full control, with doubtful monitoring capacities and actions that are hard to believe. If we can’t change reality, just imagine it’s not happening. A true dictatorship over needs (Feher and Heller dixit), one that doesn’t even let you legitimately define and pursue your own wishes presently or in the future and which, at the same time, puts on a good show of a political project that, simply, doesn’t exist in real life.

Against this frustrating backdrop, the business of surviving in Venezuela takes precedence over everything else—the sun will be there tomorrow morning, whatever you do or say. At the individual level there’s little opportunity for mourning and recollection. You live for the day and one day at a time. You sort out political change, democratic deterioration and hyperinflation one day at a time. You deal with war and a humanitarian catastrophe one day at a time. You deal with tragedy beyond yourself one day at a time.

You deal with COVID-19 and its dire reality one day at a time. The government is busy doing otherwise. 

In Venezuela, the now and the immediate takes precedence over everything else. In a constant crisis, your emphasis is on living; thinking will come a long second.

There lies the basis of resilience for Venezuelans who stay or migrate: the individual choice to be and to do, for themselves, against all odds and tribulations. The feelings we harbour, and our reflections and actions, often connect us to broader dynamics involving others.  

Sometimes it allows you to realize that you are not alone—that you are part of something bigger, whether it’s hope, nostalgia, fear, dismay, excitement or celebration. That it’s possible, at the individual level and with others, to impact history and reclaim a place for living in the face of adversity. And hope that, bottom up, these efforts create a new continuity—a new way of being that puts the crisis, once and for all, to rest.

That realization is sometimes lonely, silent, reserved, but it can also be empowering and lead to major change, new beginnings, a different way of existing individually and collectively. A new ethics of what’s possible.

This new phase, still emerging, could offer powerful lessons well beyond our borders. Because, yes, la crisis has battered Venezuela over the years. But we have also been resilient, and there’s much to build based on that experience, and much to share with others living at a time of crisis elsewhere.