Chronicles of a concerned citizen: real poverty in Venezuela
Where a care package is a lifeline and a reminder of all I've lost.
A few days ago, I received a box from Spain full of food and basic necessities, a gift from several of my worried relatives on the old continent. The well-intentioned shipment included packages of sugar, rice, coffee, a dozen cans of tuna, meat sausages, powdered milk, cookies, sanitary napkins, soap, shampoo and so many other things that for months — years in some cases — disappeared from the shelves of retail outlets in Venezuela.
For a few minutes I look at the contents of the open box with my heart beating very fast and my mouth dry with a bitter feeling that takes me a few minutes to understand. A mixture of anxiety, fear and perhaps humiliation. I try to hold back tears and I insist to myself that I should be grateful — only grateful—for the fact that my relatives try to give me their support and sympathy the best way they can, despite the distance.
“We wanted to send you more stuff,” my aunt explains in the voice recording that she sends to my cell phone after I told her I'd received the box. “But the company wouldn't let me. We hope that this will allow you to survive a few months. We will send you a few more things as soon as possible.”
I feel like weeping again. A hard, dry cry that’s tormented me rarely in my life. What’s happening? Is it wounded pride? I reproach myself. Is it pure arrogance? But it’s not any of those things, of course. It's more poignant and painful, an open wound somewhere in my mind that takes effort to understand.
I stand there with the phone in my hand and try to think clearly without knowing if I'm able to. You'd do the same thing in their place, I think. You'd hurry to help as much as you could, with whatever resources were at hand. Isn't that so? You'd put considerable effort in getting them whatever they needed, anything that could comfort them in the midst of such a crisis. Yes, you certainly would. And realizing that makes it more painful seeing the open box, full of bits of a normal country, messages and symbols of life I lost, that I don't have, which try as I might I will not be able to get back. That no matter how much effort I put in, I may not live that way again. Not, at least, while I stay in Venezuela.
I arrange the items and objects that I received on the empty shelves in the kitchen. I attempt to fill myself with a healthy optimism. Wow, I don't have to worry about coffee for several months! And look! Now you can drink your nightly cup of chocolate milk that you like so much! You can savor the rice, bake your favorite anise donuts. Almost a normal life. Why think about anything else? I tell myself while I hold a package of wheat flour. It's been more than six months that I haven't been able to buy a package of flour. I had given up the little luxuries of homemade cookies, grandma's pancake recipe, including the very Yankee pancakes with honey. Now you can. That's good, no? A relief in the midst of all this.
I squeeze the package in my hands. I don't know why, but then I remember a scene from last week: lining up on the street outside a supermarket two blocks from my house, when a woman who was a couple of meters from me started to laugh out loud. Uproarious laughter, at full blast, which made her lean forward and rock from side to side. The small crowd around her looked at her, expectantly and surprised, until she calmed down a bit and looked at us with eyes bright with tears.
“I've been in line since five. And you know what? They've run out of rice,” she says. With a shaking finger, she gestures toward the doors of the supermarket where two armed National Guards watch. “I've been waiting out here for six hours and that shit has run out!”
The crowd moves like a wave. There are screams and complaints, a hot fury so close to the surface that I wonder how it would explode. Someone pushes me out of the crowd and takes my place in the increasingly long and disorganized line. I stand there helplessly, not knowing if I dare to push and shove to return to the spot I'd occupied or complain loudly. Instead, I turn around and walk home. I do it even though I hate myself for giving up, and the humiliation hurts me more than I care to admit. But I walk on, with my head hanging and my hands pressed against my belly, thinking that perhaps it's better not to fight a hundred powerless and angry shoppers. That it certainly doesn't make much sense to try.
This is the same false and misleading enthusiasm I feel right now, standing with the package of wheat flour in my hands, thinking about the cookies I won't bake, about a normalcy that doesn't exist. Because suddenly I am well aware that I work almost fourteen hours a day without being able to buy what I need. That despite my academic background, love of work, a possible enthusiasm in the way I face the Venezuelan crisis, I’m trapped in a type of poverty that's hard to explain.
I am poor without knowing it; I suffer a type of scarcity that I doubt anyone who doesn't suffer in socialist Venezuela would understand. Despite my education, my well-paid job, the sleepless nights to manage to maintain my lifestyle, I am subjected to a kind of political and economic system that curtails my hopes, my aspirations and surely my future. I am here, trapped in the country where I grew up, not knowing if I should decide to continue fighting or only assume that the decision to escape is necessary. Perhaps inevitable.
I put the package on the shelf. I do the same with the coffee and rice, the cans of tuna and sausage, the small pastries that I know my aunt included, remembering I enjoyed them as a child. I wonder what they must think while they make that generous purchase for a relative who they haven't seen in more than a decade. The girl who they didn't see grow up, the woman who they occasionally recognize in a photograph. What they must think while filling the house with their worries, with their good intentions, with the desire to help which hurts, and I appreciate. I wonder if they will be aware of how much here they're helping me, that it's more than objects and food that I'll treasure, but rather this feeling of being lost, broken. Lost in the midst of a simple, formless, limitless anonymity.
A while later, I look at the empty box. There is a piece of paper at the bottom, trimmed with difficulty in the shape of a flower on a green background, colored awkwardly. Nobody has to tell me that my six-year-old cousin D. sent it — my cousin who I've never met and have only seen through a computer screen. When I unfold the paper (which turned out to be a card) I let out a sad, tired smile. Defeated, perhaps.
“I love you cousin, I'm also sending you a flower, because I think you'll like having it.”
And then I cry, not because of the flower or the pleasant smell of foreign confections, but because of this terrible loneliness, this barren abandonment of all hope. I wonder if Venezuela is worth it. If it's really necessary to experience so much pain because of the simple fact of being born in this place.
I don't know the answer.
My friend E. emigrated to Chile nearly a year ago, but somehow never detached from all of us who stayed in Venezuela. So it's no wonder when I receive a message from him on Whatsapp saying he'll send me any medication I need. He explains that he'll do it right away, that he'll send it with an acquaintance who will get it to me as quickly as possible.
“I really don't need anything,” I start to write. And then I think of my migraines. About these unbearable migraines that often leave me in bed for hours. These red-hot, unbearable migraines, wounds in my daily life. For over six months I have had to endure them without medication, without really knowing how to deal with a spontaneous, unpredictable condition which leaves me without strength. A couple of weeks ago I went to almost eight pharmacies and I couldn't find the only pill that usually relieves the migraines at any of them. I think about how much I must work. About the sleepless nights that I spend working to make ends meet. I delete the message with trembling fingers. “If possible, I need medication for my headaches.”
“You'll get it in less than a week,” E responds. And I find out something when I send the same message to several friends and acquaintances in common. We all hesitate to respond but finally decided on the basis of that secret and agonizing need. We are all suddenly aware of the scorched earth around us, of the inhospitable and shattered country we endure. It's no longer an opinion or an interpretation: we are survivors of a war that hasn't happened yet. Citizens in the middle of a silent, heartbreaking war. A country in ruins.
When the medication arrives — six packages that assure me relief for a few months — I hold it with trembling hands. Four years ago, I remember buying almost the entire stock of the drug that filled the shelf of a small pharmacy that I stumbled upon almost by accident. The manager looked at me with a sly smile.
“Preparing for a war?” he asked when I dropped almost twenty packages on the counter next to the cash register. I shrugged.
“I'm afraid of shortages,” I replied. The man shook his head.
“Those are tales in the press, hon. Venezuela is a rich country. I mean, it's a country with money. We'll never end up like that.”
I didn't answer. By then, some products had begun to dwindle from the shelves of stores: cooking oil, the popular Pan flour. But nobody cared much or rather, no one thought enough about the symptoms of what might happen. Still, I felt fear — a blank, strange fear that I couldn't immediately identify. Later I'd find out it was unease.
“This will be enough for a lifetime. You'll never have to buy more,” said the pharmacist, handing me the plastic bag full of medication. “And if you do have to buy more, I'll be here.”
The small pharmacy closed more than six months ago. The day I found out what had happened, the place already had a ghostly, destroyed air. I looked with wide eyes at the windows covered in newspaper, dirty windowpanes, a broken door hanging on embers. I didn't have to wonder what had happened.
I keep thinking about this void when I swallow the first tablet for the persistent migraine. I'm lying in bed in the dark, thinking about the country I've had to live in. About this tiny, suffocating horror that I must face every day. I'm suddenly overwhelmed by the desire to cry, and then the feeling passes. I remain alone with my anxiety, my mouth full of a kind of bitterness that makes me wonder if I will ever find comfort.
I record a a nice voice message to thank my uncle and aunt and cousins in Spain. I make celebratory sounds, welcoming the arrival of coffee. I send it to each of them. They all answer me with smiles and messages of relief and sympathy. Only my older cousin — who grew up with me and who I talk to every week — does not. I worry about the silence on the other side of the line.
“What's up?” I ask. The message goes unanswered. Finally she starts typing.
“I'm sorry, cousin,“ she says, and I can almost hear her slow voice, kindly saying, “I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart.“
I don't answer. Maybe she doesn't need me to. Me neither.
Translated by Rachel Glickhouse
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