While the first weeks of quarantine in 2020 passed by, Zulia State, in western Venezuela, had already been going through an internal war for fuel. For months, government officials in charge of gas stations had been fighting citizens who wait long hours or even days in lines.
I was with a family member in one of these aforementioned lines, after five hours under Maracaibo’s intense sun, when just before our turn came, four white vans arrived at the gas station and, in front of all of us citizens, went first after some guy paid the officer in charge. In dollars, in cash.
Everyone got out to (unsuccessfully) protest, yet once the four vans were served, the officer closed the station until the next day because the fuel had supposedly run out. We had no choice but to buy from a reseller for a price that made us cry, and it even turned out to be a scam—the fuel had been mixed with water and it didn’t take long for the car to fail. So there we were, cheated, tired, and mocked. Our rights disrespected, as usual. Victims of the viveza criolla.
As Venezuelans, we’ve all been victims or perpetrators of this phenomenon: a cultural regional pattern of behavior, where you take advantage of a situation while disregarding law and honesty. Practitioners often trick the innocent, use powerful friends for profit, and take advantage of moments of crisis to obtain economic benefits.
Viveza criolla (which could be roughly translated as “creole trickery”) has been studied for decades and although it’s possible to see some parallels in all cultures of the world, it predominates in Latin America with some variations by country (in Brazil, for example, it’s called jeitinho, in Peru, criollada, and so on). Viveza criolla has become a common practice for a large portion of Venezuelans in their day to day routine, regardless of political, economic, or social positions.
So there we were, cheated, tired, and mocked. Our rights disrespected, as usual. Victims of the viveza criolla.
Consider bachaqueo, that form of smuggling now common in the Venezuelan economy, reselling products at inflated prices while taking advantage of shortages. Not only have the shortages given way for the black markets to rise, but people actually normalized the practice when all other avenues to buy the products seem to have disappeared. Although this represents a great contradiction to what the majority of the country expresses when it demands respect for the law, they tolerate viveza criolla, nothing more than generalized micro-corruption.
In Venezuela, viveza criolla isn’t only perceived as the smart way to achieve some goal, it’s understood as the only way in a multidimensional crisis context that plagues the country.
Aspects of the humanitarian crisis, such as the massive flow of Venezuelan migrants moving around the world, can become a business and an example of the phenomenon. Those who are desperate to leave the country in search of a better life are forced to pay extra money to speed up the passport process because, otherwise, they’d have to wait months (or even years!) to get an answer on the status of their application.
A friend of mine lived months alone in Maracaibo because his parents moved to the United States looking for new opportunities. He couldn’t go with them because his visa and passport had expired five years ago, but living in Venezuela was still unaffordable for him, so he found a contact who told him he could get the passport renovation in less than two months. The catch: a price three times higher than what it’d be if the process worked correctly.
My friend accepted—and it all worked. He left Venezuela.
The unexpected arrival of the pandemic, along with the shortage of gasoline, made this situation worse and gave new tools for anyone trying to get ahead; just when solidarity and unity are needed, the toxic advantage is most felt in the streets.
Back in April 2020, when the quarantine measures were more strict than ever, I was grocery shopping in the market closest to me, at the allowed hours. The store had this rule that people had to wait outside, social distancing, and only one person per family could go in. Everything was going well until four ladies arrived in a black car and tried to persuade the guard that they were separated and didn’t know each other. Obviously, they were just trying to skip the line.
This has nothing to do with who’s ruling the nation, or what the international sanctions are; this is about us, the individuals.
To avoid conflicts, the guard allowed the four ladies in, only for them to group in a single hall and start shopping together, with a single cart. Everyone got mad because not only did they fool us all—they also increased the risk of infection for everyone with their disregard of social distance.
Nothing happened, though. All they got was our heavy stares, which is very little if you’re incapable of feeling shame.
Discos, bars, and other places would secretly open (an open secret, if you will), hundreds of people gathering despite the prohibition. In Maracaibo, I saw multiple examples of this, the most famous discos in the city opening on Halloween or New Year’s Eve, with images hitting social media of partygoers without masks, they posted the pictures as if the virus didn’t exist. No major scandal: it seemed like almost everyone didn’t care, and some even supported these actions.
But what about the local government? Well, the regional government could hardly criticize the people while organizing political events that counted more than 7,000 citizens (last year was, remember, an “electoral” year). The negligence here is two-fold: it’s the officials in charge, and the irresponsible decision made by all those who attended, putting at risk their own lives and the general well-being, too.
And that attitude is at the core of the issue: all of us, citizens everywhere, play a fundamental role in maintaining public order, democracy, and the fundamental values of society, by basically acting against self-sabotaging practices that aim at individual satisfaction and harm others.
Viveza criolla is another factor against our rights and makes the Rule of Law that much harder to exist, much more so in Venezuela, where it has been normalized as another way of living. COVID-19, for example, was an opportunity to show that human cohesion and empathy still exist despite the deficiencies that we all, as a collective, have suffered for years. Instead, it confirmed the phenomenon of dog-eat-dog and proved that, among Venezuelans, this culture of self-sabotage is very much alive. This has nothing to do with who’s ruling the nation, or what the international sanctions are; this is about us, the individuals.
The only ones who can stop it, but seem to enjoy it too much to care.
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