In Venezuela, God Does Not Provide

People waited in line in front of a state-run grocery store in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in January. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
People waited in line in front of a state-run grocery store in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in January. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

“Yo no creo en nadie” (I believe in no one). The phrase has become part of the Venezuelan lexicon. It was made famous, in part, by a gun-waving teenage gang boss who grandstanded before a YouTube audience and died before his 19th birthday. The expression was usually uttered in an offhand way by Venezuelans as a joke, a motto of our characteristically joyous disregard for authority. We believe in no one.

A more recent video, also shot in Venezuela, opens with a man on a street, writhing in pain. His face and part of his body are on fire. Dogs bark and traffic passes. A pedestrian walks by, seemingly oblivious to the figure before him. “That’ll teach you to keep stealing from people!” says the man behind the camera. The burning man is a thief. His punishment, dispensed by his peers, is but one of more than 37 cases of mob lynchings reported so far this year in Venezuela. People are taking the law into their own hands. They, too, believe in no one.

Venezuelans of my generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s, were raised to believe some important things: that we are a rich nation, that we had the most stable democracy in South America. Hugo Chávez, the president from 1999 until his death in 2013, made his followers believe that his brand of Bolivarian socialism was the road to dignity. He channeled billions of dollars in oil revenues to the poor, creating — for a while, at least — an illusion of growth and inclusion. Five years ago, none of us would have believed that hunger would become a part of daily life for most Venezuelans. Today, all it takes to confirm this hunger is looking out my window.

There is a milk vendor who delivers to restaurants in my neighborhood. When he has leftover milk, he sells it from his parked truck to a gloomy congregation of elderly neighbors, who begin to line up while it’s still dark out. These days, the truck shows up less often. The sad scene ends with frail customers walking away empty-handed after hours of waiting. I’m able to identify them by their solemn retreat and their tears of anger.

Recently, a woman who works at a nearby beauty parlor decided to start her commute earlier than usual to join the line in hopes of finding milk. As per the government-mandated schedule, her turn to shop for basic goods is every Friday. She gave up on her weekly trips to the local supermarket, not only because she has to work on Fridays, but also because she is terrified of being held at gunpoint by the robbers who wait to pounce on shoppers if they emerge with anything inside their grocery bags. Her 8-month-old granddaughter hasn’t had formula in months, she told me. She worries about the breast milk her mother feeds her, since she has only bread and noodle soup to eat.

Our mayor recently noted that stray dogs had all but disappeared from our neighborhood, and people are hunting pigeons in the main square.

I’m fortunate enough to go to bed at night without a grumbling belly. I have access to hard currency, which I use to buy black-market goods at jacked-up prices. I fill a suitcase with bags of rice and other grains whenever I travel abroad. Most Venezuelans cannot find the food they’re looking for, and when they do, they cannot afford it. But these daily episodes of despair make me dread the next morning, and the stories of suffering keep me up at night.

We Venezuelans have always had a way of brushing off adversity with humor. In 2012, when inflation and poverty had already started showing through the seams of Bolivarian socialism, Mr. Chávez made a rare public acknowledgment of his government’s flaws. He said it didn’t matter if there was no electricity or water, as long as we had a fatherland. The phrase “Pero tenemos patria” (At least we have a fatherland) became a cynical way of mocking the out-of-touch government propaganda every time we faced an example of our deteriorating quality of life. The phrase was replaced by an even more absurd excuse-turned-joke: “Dios proveerá” (God will provide), a line lifted from a 2015 speech by President Nicolás Maduro.

“Yo no creo en nadie” has stopped being funny. It’s become the credo of a people who no longer believe in the state as a guarantor of justice and security. It exposes the betrayal felt by Venezuelans who trusted in a government that won elections by handing out food, to the detriment of our democracy, our economy and the rule of law. It is the testimony of a government that professed to give people dignity, at the expense of the institutions that were in place to guarantee it.

Today, President Maduro insists on blocking Venezuelans seeking peaceful regime change through a recall referendum. He is trying to destroy our belief that we can take part in deciding our own future. Some people have even surrendered to the possibility of a coup, because anything is better than this. The government, it seems, also wants Venezuelans to not believe in anything.

Emiliana Duarte is the managing editor of Caracas Chronicles, a website for Venezuelan news.

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