It’s not the first time a taxi driver turned around and said “Oh Hugo Chavez!” when I said I’m Venezuelan. And I guess it happens to people from all over the world whose countries have things that stand out. But it always bothers me. However, in this little taxi cab, it was the first time I went deep into why my country was being reduced to the figure of a single charismatic politician when it was really so much more.
“Yep,” I said, intending to sleep my way through the rest of the rainy way home. I was tired, it’s finals week. As I laid my head on the window, closed my eyes and thought of the short time left before I went back to my real home for summer, the driver insisted: So do you like Chavez?
“Not particularly,” I said. “He died though, and his successor is much less charismatic, and students started protesting and the protests are going on since February and the government has responded with repression causing hundreds of deaths and detained.”
I wanted to burst it all out and go back to laying my head on the window, so I didn’t breathe in between words or organize my sentences eloquently.
Oh but here and in Algeria, my country, they love Chavez. I started to answer in the same anxious manner. I said something like “But who wouldn’t love him being so far away and hearing his nice discourse directed to the lower classes? And he was funny, and smart, and he called Bush a donkey.”
“None of the foreigners who ‘love’ him live in my country and know what its citizens are really going through. They are the ones experiencing inflation, scarcity, and insecurity to the fullest. With the minimum wage they cannot even buy enough food for their families because prices for everything have soared. Venezuela is the country with the highest inflation in the world, even though we are rich in oil and natural resources. And when people have the money to buy something, they probably won’t even find what they need because there’s no sugar, toilet paper, not even medicine!
“Yes, Chavez had this discourse that sounded very pretty and he was lucky that oil prices were high so he could distribute in a disorganized and unsustainable way to some low class sectors, providing houses to some and ineffective welfare programs in remote slums that previous governments had not even reached with words. He and his peers could also steal lots of money. They’re known for being some of the wealthiest men on earth. He was lucky he died when the consequences started to show, when there were no more dollars because he gave them out to other countries in exchange for their support…”
The taxi driver laughed. I figured I was talking way too fast when I felt my heart rate going up. I took a breath. It was too difficult to explain how this was all hitting individuals–my friends, my own family, my schoolteachers, the people I saw in the streets and in the slums.
It was hard to explain how the deteriorating education system is hitting thousands of students who, like me, have had to leave the country. How insecurity is affecting mothers whose children have been kidnapped, mothers I know and children I know who now don’t even dare to visit the country. How I know people who live in slums that have relatives killed in random shootings frequently and the cases are left uninvestigated.
How parents don’t sleep when their kids go out at night and how some aren’t even allowed to go out after 5pm. How the people who I never thought would leave the country are already gone. How there are some who continue fighting for a better life, the people who still have hope on whom we depend. How it was all more complicated than a simple struggle between rich and poor.
And you know what was most difficult? Explaining it after living in New York for two years. Away from my family, being able to walk in the street every day, partying until 5am and taking the subway back home if I want to, being overwhelmed by choices in the supermarkets, complaining about having too much to do when people my age at home are in public universities where professors aren’t paid well so they don’t even show up for class, or where there’s no paper to print exams on.
How could I explain to him? I put my head back on the window and closed my wet eyes. I wanted to stop thinking and talking about Venezuela’s problems and tell him how beautiful my country really is, so he could know that it is much much more than “Oh Hugo Chavez.”
I wanted to tell him that beautiful mountains surround the city where I’m from, that birds can always be heard, and that I noticed it only after spending long periods of time abroad. That trees interrupt the streets, and that once, when my parents were my age, people could walk around. That people’s sense of humor goes farther than anyone can imagine, making jokes out of the most extreme issues. That I know I’m home when guards call me mi amor, that we call waiters hermano.
I wanted to tell him about the beaches that weren’t too far from the city, about the Amazonian jungle that has the highest and most beautiful waterfall in the world. I wanted to tell him about the food. About the friendly people that didn’t deserve to be divided by a segregating political discourse.
So are you afraid of going back with all these protests and everything? And I said, “Well yes. I’m afraid of how I’ll feel being there for a month and a half. But you know, I’m tired of being away from the problem. So it’s complicated.
Look I understand.
I understand. it’s the same thing in my country, I’m from Algeria. Our government is also very corrupt and the cities are insecure. It happens everywhere where there is oil. I smiled, because he understood.
I sighed. “It’s a beautiful country Venezuela you know? There’s the mountains…” And I told him all I wanted to tell him before, because I knew he understood.
I would love to visit, he said. “Not now. It’s too dangerous,” I said, and my words gave me the chills. How ironic, most of my friends and the majority of my family still live there, and I’m going back for a month and a half. What are we made of? Steel?
[Images courtesy of author]