I was in the kitchen slicing sweet peppers and listening to the radio when a voice from Caracas, speaking clearly and in perfect English, made me stop the knife in mid-air and forget about dinner for a while.
In a country with the largest oil reserves in the world, this mother of three was telling the BBC’s James Menendez that she sometimes has to visit seven or eight supermarkets to track down the food she needs for her family and, even when she finds what she was looking for, she has to stand in long line for hours. Competition is fierce, and products are so scarce.
Right now, chicken and eggs are a problem, she said. You can’t find them. If you find deodorant or toilet paper, you find only one brand. Certain medicines have disappeared.
She needs one for a thyroid condition and makes do by having a friend send them from Colombia and taking half a dose. When one of her children had an infection, she called every parent at the school her child attends to see if anyone had the medicine the child needed; luckily, someone did.
The question is why Venezuela — a country that used to import brooms — should be in such dire circumstances? At 56 percent, inflation is the highest in the region and one of the highest in the world. Blackouts are common, and crime is rampant.
Economists say the government of Nicolás Maduro went from tinkering with the market to replacing the open-market system by controlling the foreign-exchange rate and the price of goods. This led to a decrease of imports and, therefore, shortages.
And so people cope, by calling in favors from friends, by seeking visas to the United States or by roaming the markets day after day and hoping for change.
The situation reminds me of a conversation I once had with my mother. I asked her why we didn’t leave Cuba earlier, before 1980. She said we couldn’t, which is true. There was no way out for us for a long time. But she also said something else.
She said that change didn’t happen all at once. One year, chicken would disappear, but one could still find eggs. Then the eggs were gone, but there were potatoes. Then there were no potatoes but, by then, it was too late. A decade had passed, and then another. Needless to say that freedom had disappeared long before the last potatoes.
In the meantime, one hopes and waits, because most people don’t want to leave their country or die in a street protest or spend years in prison. The big difference between Cuba and Venezuela is that Venezuelans have taken to the streets — an option that would have been unthinkable in the Cuba I grew up in.
Venezuelans have been protesting for a month. A month! At least 28 people have died, many of them young. The government, of course, blames, the opposition for the deaths.
The minister of tourism, Andres Izarra, told the BBC that Venezuela’s so-called economic woes are a pretext to destabilize the country. And the destabilizing force, of course, is the United States. This, too, brings back memories.
During the interview, Menendez pointed to a large portrait of Hugo Chávez, who has been dead for a year. Menendez asked, “Is he an inspiration or is he, in fact, just a sort of ghostly presence that this government cannot shake off, can’t move on a year after he died?”
“No, he’s not a ghost, he’s alive,” Izarra said, with what sounded like a sad, or maybe a proud, chuckle. He meant that Chávez’s ideas were alive, I think. Still, Izarra’s Twitter profile of doesn’t have his portrait; instead, it has a picture of a smiling Chávez wearing a yellow shirt and riding a horse.
In Cuba, too, the framed pictures were not of Fidel but of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, who were conveniently dead, though we were taught to think — and talk about them — as if they were alive. Their lives and images were used to justify the increasingly bizarre ideas of a leader who carefully controlled the length of the uniforms nurses wore, but who didn’t know how to make potatoes grow in the fertile land of a tropical island.
In Cuba, we carried our ghosts for years until they no longer mattered. In Venezuela, the ghosts are recent and they still matter. Thousands of people are said to visit every weekend the mausoleum where Chavez is entombed. But if the example of Cuba has taught us anything, it is that nations, like people, need to let go of the ghosts.
Mirta Ojito, a reporter since 1987, has worked for The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, and, from 1996 to 2002, for The New York Times, where she covered immigration, among other beats, for the Metro Desk.