Litro #165: Breaking Borders | The Temptation of Hope

Litro #165: Breaking Borders | The Temptation of Hope
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For the Generation of 2017

Translated by Lorna Scott Fox.

Almost everything of what is human is alien to me. It’s been a while since the world’s problems (the blatant failure of the romantic propositions of Italo Calvino) have upset me. The fleeting nature of information, generalised across social media, prevents reflection and despondency. Outrage is a hashtag, a harmless virus that turns social drama into light entertainment. Faced with excessive noise, I chose silence. However, my indifference was not prompted by some fit of misanthropy or arrogance. The trouble is that a certain experience, a situation I have failed to confront, stops me seeing the big picture, passing judgment or adopting a position with regard to matters that seem beyond me. I’ve become a passive onlooker, obsessed with resolving a single problem: the breakdown of my citizenship, the voluntary relinquishment of my passport and my exile by choice. My inability to understand what happened in Venezuela over the past twenty years has revoked my moral authority. The impressions that follow (notebook fragments, insomnia insights, napkin jottings) are no more than a vain attempt to give meaning to my sense of a defeated nation, a vanished society, a country divided by real walls that seemed uncontroversial when they first went up.

I don’t recall how or when my idiosyncrasy took shape. To trace the genealogy of being Venezuelan may look pointless at first, but the wholesale rout suffered by the men and women of my generation compels me to improvise a response. The basics of citizenship were instilled into us at primary school; there was nothing invasive or traumatic about it. Those were outwardly normal years. I suspect, however, that much of what took place later was already lurking behind the blandness of the syllabus. For a long time, our school churned out apathetic, conformist personalities. Wellbeing was a slogan, with no credible alternative to compare it to. We all knew (and still they reminded us every day) that we lived in a wealthy country, blessed with people skills and the bounty of oil. The Bolivarian catechism, part and parcel of the curriculum from nursery to sixth form, cast an efficacious spell. Nobody took the trouble to question that tendentious, retrograde teaching. The nation’s founders lacking biographies, their exploits were related by hagiographers. Even today, the Venezuelan social imaginary is comprised of a set of sagacious maxims formulated in the nineteenth century, which have hardened into commonplaces. Political discourse was the great heir of these defects, with the result that any vision of the nation that wanted to be taken seriously had to stick to the nineteenth-century script. In this way, we legitimised anachronism. We forgot about the future, we made the past into a project, regression was the only possible model of society. They taught us we’d found El Dorado, whereas had we opened our eyes and ears we’d have seen that we were, in reality, up to our necks in the Guaire River.

Poets and storytellers intuited the gist of this farce. The visions of the country offered by Reinaldo Solar and Alberto Soria, heroes of novels by Rómulo Gallegos and Manuel Díaz Rodríguez, put their finger right on it, and yet many readers found it easier to deplore those critiques as needlessly pessimistic. Pancho, the heroine’s uncle in Teresa de la Parra’s Ifigenia, describes the Venezuelan in one of his rants with commendable harshness, as a sardonic soul “dominated by disappointment and gloom”. The poet José Antonio Ramos Sucre was another spokesman of despair, the lucid witness to an ersatz motherland that was doomed to collapse. Years later, Rafael Cadenas would cry out in his poem “Derrota” (Defeat), and the characters created by Salvador Garmendia, among others, would walk through poverty-blighted streets, depicting the impending, inevitable explosion; but these writings, perused by few beyond a handful of academics, clashed head-on with the precepts of Boliviarian Classes, a compulsory subject in middle school that never stopped harping on what a glorious, chosen people we were. The portents were there, the artists had spoken, but their words found no echo.

The fantasy ended in February 1989. The real world twisted round to show its darkest face. A crushed, neglected populace, invisible to the democratic intelligentsia, raised its voice in anger. And what it said rocked the foundations of that torpid society. The Caracazo riots were a point of inflection, a threshold, an irreparable split for individuals who began to notice that our sense of commonality was no such thing, that the differences between people were more significant than their alleged similarities. The gulf between the fancied country and the real one became ever more conspicuous. The myth of a perfect democracy started to crack. The wealth of our rulers, added to their ineptitude and extravagance, seemed increasingly offensive. The misery of past dictatorships was forgotten, and a yearning for totalitarianism grew up. Historical memory, oblivious and alarmist, clothed the figure of Marcos Pérez Jiménez (and with him the whole military class) in the virtue of efficiency. Only the fist, the “necessary gendarme” justified by Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, could restore to the patria its lost dignity. The traditional political parties were unable to mend the cracks; they were blinded by arrogance, by brute ambition, and the belief that come what may they would maintain their class privileges. Dissent shed its fear, raised its voice and, in keeping with tradition, resorted to the ubiquitous Bolivarian ideal, the Jamaica Letter, the Angostura Address – history’s endlessly versatile clichés. The germ of the Revolution sucked in every form of social unrest, happened on a charismatic leader and decided to erase the recent past, debased as it was by indolence, the better to found an exemplary, incorruptible nation. The Bolivarian Revolution came back, to stay. This was the setting that saw the rise of the one-dimensional citizen, the model militant. Ideology obliterated subjective will, the concept of “the people” swept personal names away, and any who balked at these commands were simply expulsed from the Realm, outcasts in their own country, branded as traitors and enemies of the cause of freedom. An interior frontier was drawn, leading to family schisms, violent arguments between old friends, fratricides – for the Revolution countenanced neither debate nor riposte. Affective bonds, according to the gendarmes, were a bourgeois privilege. Antagonism and hatred festered in the cities, in every village square. Distinctions prevailed in everyday life between what could be said aloud and what was best kept to oneself. Official discourse captured public space and zealously invigilated the agora. Ordinary people adopted a uniform: red shirt, red trousers, red gaze, red thoughts. Resistance groups were put on censure lists and criminalised, their members sacked from their jobs and subjected to strict supervision. Historical accounts were bent to the needs of the present. The romantic preachings of Bolivarianism (with which schools had already poisoned the minds of several generations) fulfilled their manifest destiny at last. The old country disappeared. Language changed, geography changed, symbols changed. Mediocrity, in its literary acceptation, was the standard of excellence implemented by the supreme leader, a commonplace man hoisted to sainthood.

The Revolution was (and is) an act of faith. The connection between the tropical messiah and popular culture was intense and overwhelming. Chávez Is the People, ran one electoral slogan that blanketed the streets of the whole country for some time. Rather than a propaganda strategy, this line synthesised the deep communion linking the forgotten ones and the Eternal One. The saviour’s appearance was like a revelation, the accomplishment of a prophecy half glimpsed in the writings of the heroes of Independence. The chosen one spoke a Spanish that was accessible, didactic, conventional and crude. His discourse had none of the windy abstraction displayed by the base and senile representatives of conventional parties to keep their hold on power. The spell, moreover, did not captivate the wretched alone. No political actor has ever had the support enjoyed by Hugo Chávez at the end of the twentieth century; his siren song of the barracks seduced intellectuals, artists, business people. Amid the racket, there was no shortage of chancers and opportunists who wagered on inheriting the spoils. Those brave enough to point out the emperor’s nudity or denounce the thinness of his discourse were dismissed as crazy, deranged, rogues without a state, enemies of Venezuela. The blinding glare, the dazzlement, persisted a long time. During that extended honeymoon, every democratic institution was delivered in good faith to the leader. Without objections, waved on by a captive majority, Parliament, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Electoral Commission were handed over. The skirmish of April 2002, when some resistance groups tried and failed to overthrow the government, strengthened the regime. The failed coup provided the Revolution with a libertarian ephemeris, a label with which to blacken all those who disputed it. The Armed Forces were purged, leaving only loyalists, inveterate champions of the cause. The dissident and the demoralised now saw only two ways out: surrender or escape. Maiquetía, the run-down airport of La Guaira, turned from a place of transit into an emergency exit.

“Emigration in itself, whatever the reason, inevitably disturbs the equilibrium. On foreign soil a person tends to lose their sense of stability, along with their self-assurance and self-confidence.” It is no exaggeration to say that many twenty-first-century émigrés from Venezuela would endorse this remark by Stefan Zweig in The World of Yesterday. A huge number of us, myself included, chose to leave. With no thought-out plan, wishing only to escape the debacle, we were prepared to try our luck anywhere on Earth. A sterile debate rumbles on, often invoked by armchair libertarians, around the appropriateness of the word “exile”. In the Venezuelan case, so the argument goes, one cannot properly speak of exile, since no political force compelled us to leave the country. Our decision to leave home was a personal one. There was no order of banishment, these experts point out. Socialism’s apologists overlook the vexations of high crime rates and high cost of living, hyperinflation, shortages of basic goods, lack of professional opportunities (unless of course one possesses the patriotic ID card), the dread sensation of being watched, the constant humiliations. Explanation is futile, people believe what they want to believe. Any attempt at exposition is shouted down. Once, at I forget which literary event, a Cuban girl came up to me after a contentious round table. “Don’t waste your time and energy,” she said, “they’ll never understand, they don’t know what it’s like, they haven’t lived it.”

But the experience of emigrating was also a salutary lesson in humility, because unbeknownst to us, coddled as we were by the boom years, we had turned into an obnoxious, prejudiced nation. I remember, for instance, the way we stigmatised the Colombians during the eighties. Their creole warmth, astute wit and friendly cheer gave rise to a string of derogatory terms. The popular stereotype saw our neighbours as a bunch of criminals – drug traffickers, delinquents, hitmen. We used to look down our noses at various nearby countries beset by poverty and social crisis. We fancied ourselves the capital of the periphery. In all of this, the most notable controversy concerns the eastern border. In my day, school textbooks referred to that uncharted area as a Reclamation Zone. Even now, when the subject comes up, the politically correct view is that those lands belong to us by some sort of divine right, one that has been thwarted over and over by international rulings and treaties. What hollow, chauvinist rhetoric. Lucky Guyana, avoiding such a fate! But the advent of chavismo took us down a peg and put us in our place – a discreet and unassuming place. Our arrogance melted away: we bowed our heads and began to say please and thank you, to treat others considerately. We learned the meaning of respect the hard way. Hundreds of professionals, despised at home as traitors and enemies of the people, rediscovered their dignity abroad, in countries that almost invariably welcomed us without crowing or prejudice.

As I improvise this (rambling, tendentious, romantic) tract, I hear distant chants of war. The world, impassive but for some highly selective bouts of indignation, looks on as the debacle unfolds. The brutality of the generals threatens to annihilate every burst of resistance. The streets of Venezuela are the fields of an unequal battle. Dozens of young people, born under the Revolution, have been the first to fall, cut down by war weaponry banned under international law; humiliated by bands of unknown soldiers whose sole watchword is to safeguard the privileges of their officers. On both sides, weariness is apparent. The victorious party, however, will have to survive in the rubble of a devastated land. If the country survives at all, it will have to re-found itself, start from scratch. I belong to the generation of the vanquished, the cohort who failed to value the benefits of democracy however dull and imperfect, who did not fight on behalf of what others had achieved by dint of tenacity and sacrifice. We surrendered the keys to the city, burned the boats, and then refused to take responsibility. This private unease, the remorse I feel, my awareness of always having taken the easiest, least committed way out – this is what stops me being interested in other human dramas, caring about tragedies elsewhere or turning my social networks into echo chambers of political correctness. My position is clear: I failed as a citizen, and that failure debars me from having any views on how others should live.

The footage of the street battles, however, have encouraged me somewhat. A new generation, brought up under repression, spared the indoctrination that numbed my own youth, is standing up to barbarity. The resistance is admirable. These citizens have been forged in the street, amid blows, insults and ignominy. Day after day, innocent men and women are facing military courts, being disappeared, mistreated, murdered, and yet do not give up the fight. On the contrary, each new outrage seems to spur the rebels to redouble it. For all my scepticism, I believe in them. I have not the slightest doubt that future historians of Venezuela will record the impact of the generation of 2017. Others will witness it, others will enjoy this possible nation, free and maybe prosperous. For us, the vanquished, there only remains the temptation of hope.

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