Every few blocks, there was a newsstand where readers had a choice between Chavista papers or Opposition rags. Even the country’s largest newspapers fought to uphold objectivity under the polarizing leadership of Hugo Chavez--up for reelection that year.
Across seven months in Caracas, I interacted with all types. I taught English at night to adults. I got a part-time server position. I nannied for a family who lived in Chula Vista. I volunteered with a group of hospital clowns. I tagged along with Venezuelan friends to nearby beaches and Leones home games at the baseball stadium. I played futbolito in Parque Los Caobos and hiked the Avila on weekends.
In all this time living and working in Venezuela, I encountered advocates for both political sides equally. I listened as each argued their case for or against Chavez.
While Venezuelans could be eloquent in addressing me, I rarely heard dialogue or acknowledgement across the divide. Each person seemed to be telling me that there was one story to be told, the truth about their country. With the Venezuelan media split, anyone could subscribe to the news that affirmed their perspective.
Chavez was a powerful storyteller. He offered a narrative that promised an historic role for Venezuela: fulfilling Simon Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America and opposing the interventionist U.S. imperialists. Chavez espoused a kind of destiny for his people with roots in the past and offering a future he called 21st Century Socialism--one that could raise all boats on the nation’s oil wealth. What’s more, and importantly, Chavez looked and sounded criollo criollo. Masses of Venezuelans looked at him and saw themselves.
On the other side, the Opposition--then led by Manuel Rosales--told a story of a nation beset by bureaucratic corruption, urban insecurity, dire economic forecast, and the dangerous implications of Chavez’ new friendships with the leaders of Iran and North Korea.
Chavez’ story won him reelection. While a record number of Venezuelans turned out to vote for the Opposition in 2006, a kind of blue and yellow wave, even more red hat wearing Venezuelans showed up to reelect Chavez.
Though the Opposition’s story held important truths, it seemed that those who voted for Chavez preferred the truths contained in his version.
Buoyed by oil, Chavez' administration built housing and schools, opened missions to assist poor communities across the country, recruited medical and university exchanges with Cuba, all sustaining the faith of his base.
But the price of oil dropped, the Opposition grew, and in 2013, Chavez died.
Chavez’ successor, Nicolas Maduro, has tried to carry forward Chavez’ legacy, but the seeds of 21st Century Socialism haven’t borne fruit. The country’s plunge into poverty is well documented. Millions of Venezuelans have fled their homeland, a nation rich in natural and cultural resources.
Maduro maneuvered to consolidate power by rewriting law, imprisoning political opponents, censoring the media, deploying armed troops to quell protests. All while using the U.S. as a foil to keep his followers riled up.
Maduro turned Chavez’ story from beacon to bludgeon, stoking fear and a divisive patriotism, while negating the existence of any other narrative. Before he earned the moniker "usurper" (of the presidency), he usurped the national story.
When Juan Guaidó swore himself in as interim president last week and was recognized internationally including by the U.S., Venezuela‘s Opposition reclaimed its side of the national narrative.
But what is Guaidó’s story? And how much authorship will the international community endeavor to take from the Venezuelan people who deserve to write their own way forward?
Three years ago, the U.S. presidential election gave me the feeling that we were living in Venezuela in 2006: a divided populace further polarized by a divided media. With social media, the fracturing has accelerated.
Consider the confrontational video taken recently on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On The Daily podcast, they described it as a political rorschach: you see what you’re primed to see.
So we must invest in and protect the work of journalists who tell our national narratives with nuance and complexity. We also need leaders at both national and local levels who can author a more powerful, cohesive American narrative than the current White House occupant offers. And we must foster a culture of more empathic storytelling.
In my life, I’ve found this culture most consistently in literature, which Ezra Pound called “news that stays news.”
As I followed news of Venezuela’s political and economic descent from Boston, I reached out to Venezuelan poet Mariela Cordero whose poem “Cuerpo Público” gives an intimate, personal voice to the human fallout in Maduro’s Venezuela, one in which the daily reality seems ruled by “las jaurías.”
We need survivable spaces, like poetry or stories, in which to feel the pain of injustice: from Venezuelans in street protest to American government workers enduring the shutdown. Change begins in empathy.
Cordero's poem also pens its own solace, a meagerest place in which to harbor hope. In the last lines, Cordero writes:
Yo me acurruco / y espero que el amanecer / nos asombre con la evidencia / de que ambos, / este cuerpo donde habito y yo / sobrevivimos / a la larga noche / de las jaurías.
I curl into myself / and hope that morning / astonishes us with proof / that both / this body I inhabit and I /—survive—/ the long night / of the pack.
Today, I’m thinking about the Venezuelan people, hoping that their hope can endure. And that hope is a story we can all author going forward.