I was in Guatemala on Feb. 15 when I first received the news that Venezuela — my home for the past three decades — was on the brink of civil war. My inbox flooded with questions from friends and journalists asking what was happening in my adopted country. “Pray for Venezuela,” said numerous other email messages from people in the U.S.
I had just returned from the Mayan Ixil community of Cocop, in the state of Quiche, in the western highlands of Guatemala, where I met with survivors of the 1981 massacre there. The 58 victims of Cocop were among 1,700 Ixils murdered by the army under the leadership of Gen. Jose Efrain Rios Montt, the former Guatemalan president who was recently convicted for genocide, although the conviction was overturned by the Constitutional Court and will be retried. All told, approximately 200,000 were killed in Guatemala’s 1981–96 civil war.
At Cocop’s small cemetery, the president of the town’s survivors’ committee, Jacinto de Paz, turned to me and said, “I’d like to introduce you to my parents.” His hand then swept to two tombs. As he shared the story of how the army gunned down nine family members, his body trembled and tears fell. He was 13 at the time. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “It still hurts so much.”
Back at the hotel, I learned that two Venezuelan students and a government supporter had been gunned down at a demonstration in Caracas. There were “only” three victims at that point. (The death toll would climb to 17 by the end of the month.) But, having just embraced a sobbing Jacinto 30 years after his parents’ massacre, I knew that the pain of one loss is enough to rip apart your world forever. For the families of the Venezuelan victims, it makes no difference if their loved one shared that fate with two or 199,999 others. Their pain is just as real.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: Would I have received the same heartfelt international outpouring of concern during Guatemala’s time of troubles, when 200,000 people were slaughtered, 93 percent by the country’s own military forces and more than 80 percent of the victims indigenous?
Every news article about Venezuela seemed to reshuffle the same storyline. Over and over again I read the same dozen or so words and phrases: chaos, civil war, 54 percent inflation, crime, exit Maduro, government responsibility, peaceful students, Lopez, Harvard Business graduate, toilet paper, etc.
Worse, most news sources referred to social media messages and images as their source. Some were even accompanied by bizarre photos showing protesters in Caracas wearing turtlenecks, jackets and sweaters, when the average temperature is about 80 degrees. Others showed toppled buildings. As it turned out, some of those images were from crackdowns on student protesters in Chile two years ago and the 2011 earthquake in Japan.
As the media hype grew daily, I began to sense that the call to “pray for Venezuela” was not heartfelt concern for those suffering but actually a demand for regime change.
Image and reality
I returned to Venezuela on Feb. 23, 11 days after the protests began, to find Caracas surprisingly normal. Buses, subway trains and pedestrian traffic all moved at their usual hectic pace. Streets were filled with schoolchildren and office workers; shops, banks and restaurants were open and bustling. After hours of traversing various zones of the city with errands and seeing absolutely nothing amiss, I opened my email that evening to messages from friends in the U.S. “Lisa, how are you getting by?” read one of them. “We’ve heard that the roads in Caracas are completely blocked.”
I flew back to my home city of Barquisimeto, 166 miles west of Caracas, the next day. As with the scenes in the capital, nothing seemed amiss. I turned on the TV to see if the national picture was bleaker. All Venezuelan stations carried a live broadcast of an emergency national peace conference hosted by President Nicolas Maduro in an effort to halt the violence by bringing together diverse sectors of society. I sat transfixed for four hours as prominent Venezuelan academics, journalists and religious, business and opposition leaders shared their concerns about the economy and crime. All expressed commitment to Venezuela’s stability and disdain for the violent tactics of many protesters. Maduro took notes and said his government supported many of the suggestions raised at the conference. Watching the discussion from such an array of Venezuelan stakeholders left me hopeful.
International headlines the next morning, however, told a different story. “Venezuelan opposition boycotts ‘bad faith’ talks,” read the title of the Miami Herald’s story. A similar focus on the talks’ alleged failure was echoed by most mainstream reports.
Deja vu swept over me. In April 2002, the United States questioned the legitimacy of President Hugo Chavez and American media similarly hyped opposition protests. The turmoil then ended with a short-lived coup that Chavez and his supporters were able to defeat.
“We are not Colombia,” several speakers reaffirmed at the peace conference. Venezuela’s neighbor to the west has lost tens of thousands of citizens to political violence in recent decades. By contrast, Venezuela has made enormous social gains, peacefully, via the ballot box. In fact, it has the lowest rate of political violence in Latin America.
To be sure, the press is correct to report that Venezuela’s inflation is much too high. But it is also the most economically equal society in all of Latin America. It has eradicated poverty more than any other country in the hemisphere. That is the news the international media rarely report.
Media watchers also might wonder why the roadblocks that news reports have fixated on are only found in the wealthier areas of the country. Why are the people from the “barrios,” Venezuela’s populous lower-income neighborhoods, not streaming down to join the protesters in Caracas?
Why are basic questions not even being asked, let alone answered?
When I built my home 17 years ago in a rural area outside Sanare in the western state of Lara, my neighbors were barely eking out a subsistence, digging for potatoes and herding goats and sheep. The only school in town was elementary level, and teachers showed up only two days per week on average. There were no modern modes of transport. If you got sick, you had to walk eight miles to town and get in line at 3 a.m. to be seen by a doctor the next day at the nearest hospital.
Today, that same community has an elementary and secondary school, and a free university that functions on the weekends. Every evening, the university offers adult classes. My neighbors are now doctors, lawyers and teachers. Their younger siblings face few barriers to pursuing their dreams. There are 18 new homes — double the amount before, with approximately the same population — built by the local community council in my enclave. Many of my neighbors have replaced horse sheds with driveways for their vehicles. There is also a free medical clinic, staffed by Cuban doctors and Venezuelan medical students from my community, half a mile down the road.
“For every year of the revolution, I think that everyone has gained a kilo,” said a surprised American visitor, commenting on my neighbor’s plumper physique.
These same stories could be told a thousand times over. If only journalists would actually come to Venezuela and leave their five-star hotels, maybe they would figure out why the country has repeatedly re-elected Chavismo in more than a dozen elections for the last 14 years, in what former U.S. President and democracy observer Jimmy Carter calls “the best electoral system in the world.”
Venezuela is far from perfect. It is a new and evolving political and economic experiment that puts the poor front and center. Among several pressing challenges, it needs to confront rampant crime head-on. Toward that end, Maduro’s administration is doing a better job than his predecessor’s by instituting a national disarmament program and a national youth program to bring sports and culture to the barrios. Even more needs to be done, though, to guarantee security for all citizens.
Venezuela also faces shortages of staples such as milk and corn flour. Many are to blame. It is the government’s fault for not instituting a policy that promotes national production and makes necessary imports more fluid. But private industry is also to blame for hoarding or exporting products purchased with cheap government-regulated funds.
It’s my fault, too. Check out my pantry. Like those of most of my friends, it has a few more quantities of things than needed. In my case: 20 kilos of corn flour, 10 large packages of toilet paper and 5 kilos of coffee. Sometimes my compañero calls to say he’ll be late, he’s in a line. “What for?” I ask. “Not sure,” he responds, “but probably something essential.” As I open the door for him to bring in the 4 liters of oil, I see my neighbor balancing a bag stuffed with sacks of sugar.
Return to order
Venezuela’s challenges cannot be addressed overnight, but certain steps should be taken immediately. The violence must end. All Venezuelans can and must contribute to the return of peace and order. The government should continue to detain and investigate security forces who responded with violence. Radical forces in the opposition must take down roadblocks that create havoc for their own neighbors. And the international media should be called out for their efforts to misrepresent the current reality in Venezuela.
I have visited 18 Latin American countries in the past six years, but Venezuela is unique among them. Why? Because it has the world’s largest oil reserves — a potential boon for all of its citizens, including the poorest. Due to this fortune, Venezuela is also a prize for corporations and countries seeking access to its natural resources. But all of the country’s bounties, which my family has had the fortune to enjoy, rightly belong to each and every Venezuelan: its orange-flowering bucare trees, its Afro-Venezuelan tambores (drums), its mangos, arepas, avocados and coffee.
Yes, pray for Venezuela. Pray that there will be no more bloodshed. Pray that the people may continue their peaceful political tradition of finding solutions to real problems and differences. Pray that they be allowed to continue to determine their own destiny. Pray that Venezuela may remain a sovereign nation.
Lisa Sullivan is Latin America coordinator for School of the Americas Watch, a nonviolent grassroots organization that works with the people of Latin America to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas and to oppose its policies. She has lived in Venezuela since 1982, and for 21 years was a Maryknoll lay missioner, working as a community organizer in the western barrios of Barquisimeto.