“I got soap and some toys for her son,” one Venezuelan mother was telling another in Tocumen Airport in Panama. At her feet a carry-on looked like it was about to explode it was so full, as the lady enumerated everything she was taking back to her country. The conversation reminded me of my own compatriots who return to the Island with luggage stuffed with products, including everything from toothpaste to sewing needles.
In a situation of scarcities, we human beings end up looking like those “leafcutter ants,” capable of carrying a part of the forest back to their anthills. But the task of seeking what we lack at any cost also locks us into a cycle of obsessions, where buying eggs, stocking up on milk or locating the market that has toilet paper will consume a major share of our time and energy. We end up trapped in a cycle of survival, in which we can hardly concern ourselves with our role as citizens.
However, there will also be some who want to explain the hardships in their own way. Like the official analyst who, some days ago on Cuban television, addressed the scarcity of basic goods in Venezuela. In that lady’s opinion, the blame for the shortages falls on the sector that hoards, or fails to import, merchandise in order to provoke social chaos. In her discourse, the “evil rich” make it difficult for the “good poor” to put a plate of food on the table. A line of argument so ridiculous that I stopped to listen to it, as if it were a comedy show.
The biased analyst was an outstanding student of the school of “Castroism,” in which Hugo Chavez and Maduro were also trained, and where they learned that while filling political discourse with a constant reference to the enemy may not serve to appease the burning hunger in the stomach, at least it keeps the needy entertained. A policy of fanfare, where there are always “the others” who do evil things and boycott the government, which claims to be the target of attacks coming from all sides.
A policy of fanfare, where they are always the others who do evil things and boycotting the government, which claims to be the target of attacks coming from all sides
The truth is that long lines outside markets are not a media hoax nor an exaggeration of the Venezuelan independent news media, but a reality that affects the entire country. Flour is unavailable for everyone and economic instability knows no social classes nor distinguishes ideologies, although the corruption and an extensive network of privileges awarded to those closest to power offer them a significant material respite. In these circumstances individuals are reduced to their condition as desperate consumers, a situation that results in a more controllable society, and a citizenry less attuned to the political scene.
As in a warped mirror, we Cubans see our worst moments reflected in Venezuelans. If previously we could say with pride that we share a culture, a language, and even geographic proximity, now we see ourselves in issues no one would want to brag about.
We are both a people who have learned to wait, stand in long lines, always carry a bag to catch on the fly any rumors of a reappearance of some product. The luggage we check at the world’s airports travels loaded with the same things and full of the same anxieties of deprivation. When we listen to ourselves speak it is now difficult to distinguish if we are in Havana or Caracas, if we are waiting outside a market in Maracaibo, or in Santiago de Cuba. Are we them or are they us?