“Every junkie story is too long.”
That was the opening line of an essay on heroin addiction I read as a teenager, and it has always stayed with me. For addicts, the relapse cycle too often repeats again and again, and that’s its special tragedy. After your first relapse, all your friends and family are right there on your side. But with each new relapse, a few more of them drop away, put off by the seeming hopelessness of it all. Some simply get bored of a story that seems to repeat endlessly and go nowhere. The concentric circles tighten around you, and since every junkie story goes on long past the point where it made narrative sense to continue it, you end up with just your mom, if you’re lucky, or totally alone if you’re not.
It’s a thought I’ve come back to often as Venezuela’s descent into the abyss proceeds apace. My country’s cycle of self-harm follows the spiral narrative with eerie precision. Five years ago, when President Nicolás Maduro refused to accept the results of a parliamentary election he’d lost, all of the international community was there for us: actively pressing for a return to democratic rule. But with each cycle of protest, repression and exile since, we’ve felt a few more friends fall away. Diplomats, editors, political leaders, intellectuals — one by one, they fall off. You can sense them reclassifying Venezuela into the “hopeless” column in their heads.
In one way, you can’t blame them. A story that never changes is, by definition, not “news” — so Venezuela’s gradual disappearance from the headlines is hardly a mystery. Like a junkie, the country keeps hurting itself in predictable and repetitive ways, exhausting people’s sympathy. Boredom mixes with disgust; disgust paves the way to disengagement. Soon, nobody cares.
It’s easy to be lured into the sense that since a country has suffered for so long, it somehow doesn’t count anymore. This is, of course, an obvious absurdity. But once our reserve capacity for compassion is exhausted, our minds cast around for ways to excuse our disengagement. Helplessness and contempt fuse into a toxic disinterest. The suffering of the people caught in the middle stops registering.
But it doesn’t stop.
Coronavirus cases are now spiking in Venezuela, fueled by a wave of returning migrants who fled extreme poverty in the past few years only to find themselves jobless and penniless in neighboring countries amid a pandemic recession. They’re sneaking back into a devastated country that already couldn’t feed them when they lived there, and bringing an uncontrollable disease with them as the government tries to pen them into mandatory quarantine camps near the border.
Back in Caracas, what once passed for political life has turned into a parody of itself, with a fully authoritarian government no longer really pretending to be anything else. In a brazen move against what remained of Venezuela’s democratic tradition, the regime has wrested control of the opposition’s three largest political parties and installed its own stooges as “opposition leaders.” In one sure sign that the socialist revolution has entered the inevitable eating-its-own-children phase, last week saw the arrest of Nicmer Evans, a dissident leftist who has led the opposition to the Maduro regime from the left. Once one of Venezuela’s highest-profile socialist intellectuals, Evans now sits in one of the regime’s dismal prisons facing Orwellian charges of “inciting hatred” against a government he’s long accused of insufficient socialist zeal.
Meanwhile, independent university researchers find Venezuela is now the poorest country in the Americas, with a shocking 96 percent experiencing poverty and food insecurity. The economy has never stopped contracting since 2014, turning extreme deprivation into the now permanent condition of a nation that boasted a large middle class as recently as eight years ago.
The horrors haven’t stopped: Fresh lives are ruined daily. Visibly at a loss for what to do about it and distracted by the pandemic, the world has simply tuned out the horror. Probably, you have, too. And I don’t blame you. It’s only human.
And yet, the children whose growth is being stunted by a needless food crisis in Venezuela right now don’t suffer any less just because we’re bored with the story. The political dissidents still being rounded up and jailed don’t suffer less because we’ve stopped paying attention. The martyrdom of a whole country doesn’t stop just because you stop looking.
But you do stop looking. And I don’t blame you. Even I stop looking, and it’s my job to look. It’s natural. Because every junkie story is too long.
Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan political commentator and contributing columnist for Global Opinions. He is chief content officer of the Group of 50.