You don’t realize how bad it is in Venezuela until you set foot in any other country. Let’s be clear: living in the anguish of lacking medicine, waiting hours in line to buy food, depending on a box from the government to feed your family, or submitting to the constant sadness of having to say goodbye to your loved ones conditions you to live differently, feel differently, act differently. But you don’t realize it.
You’re not capable of measuring the damage that Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship is doing you because you’re quite busy on a day-to-day basis just surviving, and because—no matter how hard you resist—you eventually become used to it.
All this changes if you are among the small percentage of Venezuelans who are able to leave the country and start to live (that’s “to live,” intransitive verb, definition “to be alive”).
A few weeks ago I took a plane and left Venezuela for a few days of rest and for a few work meetings. It wasn’t the first time I’ve left my country to make a life elsewhere. I did it eight years ago when I did a master’s in political journalism in Mexico City. The difference between then and now is the deterioration of the country, of services, the scarcity, the increase in insecurity, the restriction of liberties, the torture inflicted on the dear people who oppose the regime—but we’ll talk about that later.
As soon as I got off the airplane I felt the horrible cold of Washington, and so I put on the improvised “winter coat” I’d brought from Caracas and went to the airport bathroom. I noticed the contrast immediately: there was toilet paper!
But not only were there rolls of toilet paper next to every toilet, there was also liquid soap by every sink, and you could control the temperature of the water—which, by the way, came out nice and clear—just by turning the handle. Left to make it hotter, right to make it colder. I made it nice and warm and washed my hands, face, and neck.
To turn on the faucet and have water come out that is not even a little bit yellow and smelly, to be able to drink it to quench one’s thirst, the very same water you use to wash your dishes and clear your floor… that by itself is almost too much. But if you add to that that just washing your hair will turn it smooth and straight, and that you need neither a blow-dryer not a flat iron to control your Caribbean mane, that’s a cultural impact on a whole new level. Women will know what I’m talking about.
That’s when I realized that one of the habits Venezuela had left me with was buying bottled water to drink, to cook with, for everything. You forget, or you’re simply unaware, that in other parts of the world the tap water is clean. And steady. The service here is neither sporadic nor rationed. Which means that I can literally do laundry any time I feel like it. They seem like simple things, but they’re not. The system Maduro has implemented conditions you, it makes you different, and it accustoms you to live with scarcity, misery, worries, and restrictions.
If anything unites those of use who have lived under “Madurodom,” it’s the mix of feelings that washes over us when we walk into a foreign supermarket.
First you smile, your face lights up, you feel free; but as you walk past the shelves you’re overtaken by the upsetting sensation of having to choose among thousands and thousands of different brands to buy a single gallon of milk, detergent, or anything at all. You don’t know what to do. The contradiction of abundance, the shock of being able to choose. In Venezuela they’ve spent years trying to take away our ability to think, make our own decisions, and make a considered choice.
Here we should also mention “learned scarcity,” that quality that compels a person to anxiously buy more than he or she needs. The application of “just-in-case.” Speaking in the terms our government likes to use, in Caracas I became a “hoarder.” I filled my pantry with personal hygiene items and packaged food for use in the foreseeable (or unforeseeable) future. I had accumulated enough for three or four months of “you just can’t get that anymore.”
There’s also the certainty that you can go to the store whenever and however often you want, and those well-stocked shelves will always be there, like the Rock of Gibraltar.
I’m not the only one. Every Venezuelan bears the scar of personal habits deformed by the Maduro government. A friend of mine, a lawyer and defender of political prisoners, confessed to me that as soon as she got off the airplane she went into a little restaurant and that the first thing she did was grab the napkins given to her by the waitress and tear them into pieces so that she could divide them up between herself and her friends. The waitress thought she was just passing the time until the food arrived. She never understood.
They’re scars, marks, that are not easy to erase. Here in Washington I still buy food in bulk and save whenever possible. A few minutes ago, after bathing, I picked up all the little pieces of soap and squeezed them in my fist. I’ll use that little ball until it literally disappears.
All this is part of what you learn under the Maduro dictatorship: to live with what there is, to make resolutions in common, to help others, to gather up the thousand pieces of your heart after having to say goodbye to loved ones or having to look head-on at the hunger that children are facing. A reality that, also, confirms that things could be better, that that hope is in no way utopian.
This piece was originally published at TalCual. Translation: VOC.