On a Date While Venezuela Burns

Barricades constructed by protesters who opposed the election last month for a new National Constituent Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
Barricades constructed by protesters who opposed the election last month for a new National Constituent Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

It was 7 p.m., and the restaurant was empty. I was taking her to my favorite place in the city, informal but charming, with plastic tables and chairs outside, and sometimes live music. It has the best pizza.

I was nervous. I hadn’t been on a date in forever, and María, a student in electrical engineering, had a ponytail and red lipstick. What if I ran out of things to talk about? What do you talk about on a date when your country is collapsing? Outside that restaurant, outside that bubble I wanted to get into that night, people were dying in the streets fighting President Nicolás Maduro’s bloody authoritarianism.

I live in Ciudad Guayana, an industrial city in northeastern Venezuela. The opposition isn’t very strong here, and the turnout for local protests hasn’t been great. Most of the action that’s been making headlines happens in Caracas, the capital. But I’ve talked to people who carried the body of a protester killed by the police in a town nearby, and to a man who was tortured by the authorities.

I’ve had a tough time myself. Even young professionals like me have been going hungry, and my older brother almost died from an allergic reaction because we couldn’t find an injection to give him. So I’ve joined the marches to the courthouses, to demand respect for the Constitution, ask for the release of protesters who have been arrested and honor those who have died.

That Tuesday last week I needed a break, I needed that date. The following Sunday the government was going to hold a bogus referendum to create a constituent assembly, giving it unlimited power to change the Constitution. Things were only going to get worse.

“You’re the first ones to arrive. You’re almost opening the restaurant,” the owner said with a smile. “What would you like?”

He was sitting at one of the tables by himself, drinking a beer and checking his phone. His head was shaved. He wore a black T-shirt with the logo of the restaurant, the name “Portofino” in white letters with a long curly “P” that made the silhouette of a guitar. It had just stopped raining; the tables and the brick floor were wet. The street lamps there have never worked well, and the dim lighting, which might have been pleasant under other circumstances, brought out the drabness of the place. Reggae music played in the background.

“Would you like some beers? I’ve got Polar.”

“What else do you have?”

“That’s all I’ve got. The delivery truck didn’t come today.”

“Soft drinks?”

“No soft drinks.”

And certainly no pizza.

That Tuesday was the 116th day of protests since the government-controlled Supreme Court stripped the opposition-led National Assembly of its powers, and more than 100 people had since died in clashes between demonstrators and police forces or paramilitary groups.

The day before, the opposition had announced more protests. It called for a national strike starting Wednesday, and for barricading city streets throughout the country, for 48 hours. On Friday, there would be a massive protest in Caracas. After that, who knew what. Tuesday was a day for us to stock up on supplies and brace ourselves. A truce of sorts.

For a moment in the restaurant that evening, María and I weren’t sure whether to sit down at a table or just leave. There wasn’t much to do there, but it was truce day and a date.

The owner started talking about how difficult it was to keep the restaurant going. “People don’t feel safe enough to leave their homes,” he said.

I said that people didn’t go out because they didn’t have enough money, and before I knew it we were talking about how the country was falling apart, just what I hadn’t wanted to do that night. María and I sat down anyway: My brother, our ride, wasn’t answering his phone. The owner kept talking, complaining that the crisis was killing business. He said that because of several shootings, only two out of four bars were left on Caruachi Street. He called it “Tarantino Street.”

María doesn’t drink, but I asked for a beer, so that we hadn’t come for nothing.

“We recently hired a comedian from Valencia and had to cancel the show,” the owner said, referring to a city a 12-hour drive away. “He couldn’t come because the streets were blocked.”

“If this continues, I’m closing up and going to Puerto Rico. I’ve got family there.”

That morning I’d gone out to buy whatever I could find. The supermarket was full of people doing the same thing. But food shortages are not as bad today as they were a year ago: Many Venezuelans have become too poor to even shop. I got rice, wheat flour, bananas, yuccas and potatoes. I saw several people carrying just two or three kilograms of rice in their arms — their groceries for the apocalypse, and they didn’t need a cart. They will have run out of that by now.

By 8 p.m. we were ready to leave the restaurant. The owner charged me half price for the beer: He didn’t have change. Another cash crisis.

Outside, businesses were closing, the streets were emptying out. María and I decided to go to the main shopping mall: With any luck we’d find a place that wasn’t about to go broke. It was almost deserted, but we were able to catch the last movie screening of the day, “Wonder Woman.” We had two hours and 20 minutes of not thinking about three-digit inflation, mass emigration and people feeding on garbage. But that bubble burst as soon as we walked out: Children were waiting around, begging for money to buy food.

María and I never got to eat that night, but we agreed to meet again.

Last Sunday, the vote for the constituent assembly was held. It was a horrible day, the worst, I think, since the protests started in March. Between 10 and 16 deaths, and many other casualties, were reported throughout the country. I found out about them mostly through WhatsApp, listening to voice messages left by frightened people, with the sounds of detonations in the background. That day, several people were shot and wounded in Ciudad Guayana, my city, the quiet city.

Carlos Hernández, an economist, is a contributor to Caracas Chronicles. This essay was translated by Sonia Berah from the Spanish.

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