THE oil-rich nation of Venezuela is on its way to becoming a failed state. Hyperinflation runs at 1000 percent, there are severe shortages of food and medicine, and street demonstrations have resulted in the killing of scores of protesters and thousands jailed. Writing recently in the UK-based The Guardian newspaper, Christopher Sabatini observed how, under President Nicolàs Maduro, the successor of Hugo Chavez, “a long, slow, painful—but predictable—slide to authoritarianism is bringing the country to anarchy and potential civil war”. A lecturer at New York’s Columbia University, Sabatini has declared democracy in Venezuela dead.
“The middle classes are crushed,” Manuel tells me. “Anyone with any outside connection is getting out.” Liza, his partner, concurs. “Manuel’s father has a Spanish passport and that’s why we are able to come here. If we remained in Venezuela, we would be hungry and hopeless like everyone else, and unable to help our families.” I learn that Manuel is an attorney specializing in labor law and Liza is a pharmacist. “Here” is Madrid, and they are a young Venezuelan couple whom I happened to meet while eating a terrific lunch of Venezuelan arepas and empanadas.
It is Saturday afternoon in the Mercado de Maravillas, an emporium of meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables in Cuatro Caminos, one of Madrid’s most ethnically diverse barrios. I am with an academic friend of mine who walks me determinedly past the tempting Korean groceries, the Latinos selling green chili sauces and corn meal, the piles of crab and squid, the wheels of queso manchego, sheep milk cheese, and membrillo, the amber-colored blocks of quince paste that is beloved of Spaniards. I notice the Philippine flag is hoisted over a counter selling only cuts of colorless pork and chicken. We are seeking a Venezuelan food stall that, my friend assures me, serves up the tastiest arepa in the city.
The stall, in the heart of the market, is crowded and only one barstool remains vacant. My friend gallantly offers it to me. From the menu, scribbled on a chalkboard, we order fried empanada filled with chicken, and white cheese and black beans, known as domino, and a beef arepa, a flat, round sandwich made from grilled maize dough and stuffed with slow cooked pulled beef and eggs. To drink there are glasses of papelòn con limòn, iced water flavored with raw sugar cane syrup and lime juice. The empanada pastry has a pleasing crunch and the filling tumbles into the mouth, steaming and juicy. It is a glorious little feast and everyone around me eats with obvious gusto and pleasure.
Manuel and Liza are part of an exodus of Venezuelan professionals who have fled their country since Maduro took power in 2014. While the crisis finds its roots in the economic blundering and political bombast that characterized Chavez’s disastrous 14 -year socialist rule, Maduro plunged the country further into chaos and catastrophe. He compromised the judicial system by appointing only loyalists, and suspended state and local elections indefinitely, effectively stripping the citizenry of elected representation.
“These slow-motion acts,” Sabatini says, “eroded the checks and balances of democratic government and accountability and created a military-controlled government, the likes of which the region has not seen since the dark days of juntas and dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s.”At the end of July this year, Maduro called an election to choose delegates to rewrite the nation’s constitution. It was an action the aims of which nobody backed and few understood. The majority of Venezuelans supported their constitution. Indeed, many considered constitutional change to be a useless exercise that served only to detract attention away from the deepening economic and humanitarian crisis.
Rigidly sticking to chavismo, the socialist model he inherited from his predecessor, Maduro allowed nationalization to strangle the agricultural, manufacturing, and tourism sectors. As oil revenues plummeted, he blamed the US and purged his government of those he identified as traitors. Leading political opponents were prosecuted. Luisa Ortega, Maduro’s most vocal opponent, is on the run. The country’s former attorney general and onetime loyalist, Ortega is now labeled a public enemy. In sheer idiocy and brutality, Maduro is likened to the corrupt, callous, crackpot Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe. Whether Venezuela is headed for totalitarianism or absolute chaos remains unclear.
“The country is desperately short of food, medicines, and basic necessities,” says Manuel. Gesturing at our plates piled with food and the copious amounts of guasacaca, the avocado salsa we have been helping ourselves to, Manuel remarks, “eating like this is very rare now. Everything has ground to a standstill. There are brown-outs; people are scared to be out in the streets because of crime and the military. People just try to survive.” “We did not know Maduro would be like this,” Liza interjects. “He was affable and good natured. Few thought he would become a murdering dictator and turn Venezuela into a basket case.”
In the course of the conversation, I admit that there are some parallels with what is happening in the Philippines. Liza has worked with Filipino medics in US hospitals and asks me why so much killing is taking place in my country. “Filipinos are nice people,” she says reflectively and kindly.
Her words seem to carry an unasked question, a barely discernible implication that is contained in her parting shot. As we shake hands and go our separate ways, I catch it and think about what she could not bring herself to ask me: “Is our present your future?”