Photo: Gonzalo Nuñez

Dealing with Chavista Propaganda in the Heart of San Francisco

The thing about first-world leftists who support chavismo is that they don’t realize they embody the imperialistic dynamics they criticize

The last thing I expected—or wanted—to see the night my uncle passed away was the face of El Comandante. I was in San Francisco, California, after all, not San Francisco de Yare. But when I got the call from my mother, I happened to be near the Compañeros del Barrio Preschool, on Valencia Street. Walking to my car, I saw the smiling faces of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro through my tear-filled eyes. “Viva Chávez y la Revolución Bolivariana,” said the surrounding text. “Viva la Revolución Siempre.”

I’m not one for public displays of emotion—or vandalism, for that matter. But if I’d happened to have a bat in my hands that night, I might have smashed the daycare’s windows. Instead, I went on an angry, tearful rant in the dark, as passersby looked on in silence.

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The thing about first-world leftists who support chavismo is that they don’t realize they embody the imperialistic dynamics they criticize. These people have no problem looking a Venezuelan in the eye and saying they know better about the country where our mothers gave birth and our dead are buried. They support those in power over those who are powerless. Their desire to center themselves in every story means they revel in the empty anti-Yankee rhetoric of chavismo, denying agency to any and all opposition movements by simply uttering three letters: C-I-A. Or, they compare the United States to Venezuela, minimizing our troubles by pointing out everything that’s also wrong in the land of Uncle Sam. But when someone tells you they have cancer, you don’t respond by telling them about your diabetes and sciatica.

If a Venezuelan doesn’t fit their reductive idea of el pueblo (and any Venezuelan critical of chavismo doesn’t, per their tautology), they dismiss our experiences and opinions, calling us gusanos. It’s a form of gaslighting all Venezuelans abroad have surely experienced. We can cite the statistics we know by heart all day long—like over 5 million people fleeing the country—but these will fall on deaf ears. As both an economist and writer, I know that it is stories, not facts, that move people. So when I’m trying to convince a skeptical American acquaintance, I sometimes tell them about my uncle.

Growing up in Venezuela, he was the closest thing I had to a father: I was his Enana and he was my Tío Tato. He was born on December 31st, 1953, part of a growing middle class with different opportunities before them. While my mother attended tuition-free public university and received a government scholarship to do a doctorate abroad, my uncle dropped out of high school to become a mechanic. It was a solid plan. In a country with ever-growing consumption, there was always a car or appliance to fix.

“They compare the United States to Venezuela, minimizing our troubles by pointing out everything that’s also wrong in the land of Uncle Sam.”

Photo: Gonzalo Nuñez

Certainly that’s what I remember in the ‘90s. My mother and uncle had chosen different life paths, but they both had a job and a car, a middle-class life, and on weekends we would all drive down to Higuerote to lounge by a pool and play dominoes long into the balmy nights. Those days seem idyllic, but I was growing up in a changing Venezuela marked by coup attempts, bank runs, and growing crime. Systemic issues were being allowed to fester. As the country deteriorated, my mother decided to move to the United States; my uncle chose to stay and vote for Chávez. It was a decision he would regret.

He would also regret voting against Chávez in the 2003 recall. After his name appeared in the Lista Tascón, he was denied employment and services. Through an acquaintance, he eventually found work living and working at a car wash, as a guachiman, a watchman. He was in his 50s, and worse off than ever.

When he received his first cancer diagnosis in 2008, my mother and I tried to do what we could from afar. We didn’t have much money then, but what we did have we used to help pay for his care and send supplies. He had to have part of his jaw removed in a difficult surgery that required transplanting muscle tissue from his chest to his face. By the time it was all said and done, he was cancer-free, disfigured, and disabled. We counted our blessings. At least the public hospitals still worked then.

In the years that followed, we could sense that he was struggling to stay afloat as the economic situation in Venezuela worsened. But he didn’t like to worry us—that is, until he couldn’t afford to stay quiet anymore. One day, he confessed that he’d lost over 30 pounds, down from 165. He knew he’d been eating less and losing weight, but he didn’t know how much; he couldn’t afford a scale and hadn’t been weighed at his last medical check-up because the scale had been stolen. So one day, he walked almost an hour to a friend’s house just to weigh himself. Buses weren’t running due to the gas shortage.

By 2017, my uncle subsisted on a pension of 2 dollars a month and government-subsidized food parcels that came irregularly and lacked nutritional value. We started sending food and money much more regularly. Then one day, he was robbed by a man on a motorbike who knocked him down just to steal a bag of food he was carrying. My uncle suffered a concussion and lost consciousness. Though he recovered, we worried that sending him food and money could make him a target in his neighborhood in somewhat low-income Guarenas. We also worried that he wasn’t getting his recommended cancer screenings. We worried.

Two years later, he got sick again. At first he was misdiagnosed with a simple bursitis, but eventually a doctor mentioned metastasis. I bought a one-way plane ticket for my mother and sent her off into the unknown. I stayed back and worked, worrying about the money we might need to treat him, thinking there might be a little more time for la Enana to see her Tío Tato. It was a decision I would regret.

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A preschool called “Compañeros del Barrio” might seem out of place in an American neighborhood where a one-bedroom apartment sells for more than a million dollars, but it’s actually the yoga studio and boutique across the street that are out of place, historically speaking. The Mission district in San Francisco was once a bastion of Chicano and Central-American leftist militants who supported revolutions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, and Guatemala. Before tech booms would bring in a different, gentrifying demographic, San Francisco’s liberal politics and Latino population were a draw for Latin American leftists in exile who weren’t welcome in Miami.

It isn’t difficult to understand why, once upon a time, U.S. leftists like those in San Francisco might have supported chavismo. What’s harder to understand is how, to this day, in the face of so much tragic evidence, some of them continue to defend the indefensible. I’m talking about the likes of Ilhan Omar, Boots Riley, Code Pink, and yes, the Compañeros del Barrio. They are now our congresspeople, our film directors, our professors, our neighbors. They claim to speak for the downtrodden while refusing to listen, adding to our pain. If they did, they would hear millions more stories like my uncle’s, who died hating chavismo.

It’s important for me—as a writer and a human—to avoid making assumptions. To offer others the generosity of spirit they might not offer me. So before finishing this essay, I decided to call the Compañeros del Barrio. Perhaps they would consider taking down those posters that trigger me every time I walk by. I called a couple of times and left a message, but no one called me back.

Naihobe Gonzalez

Venezuelan-American writer in Oakland, California. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University and conducts policy research when she's not writing.