When I first arrived in Venezuela in 2006, I was predisposed to supporting Hugo Chávez and his project known as the Bolivarian Revolution. I come from an academic background in Latin American Studies; I have read of the the horrors enacted by right-wing and military governments during the late twentieth century. I’m a perennial student, a firm believer in open access to education and universal rights. If indeed it still exists, I’d say I was a staunch follower of the left in my home country. One of the reasons I initially chose to live in Venezuela was to experience the Revolution first hand. I wanted to see that socialism was alive, that politics could work, that the people were finally protagonists. Like Wendy Darling, perhaps, I wanted to believe.
What I have experienced in Chávez’s Neverland has been entirely mixed. I’ve met intelligent, committed people who truly believe in Chávez’s project, dedicating their lives to advancing his views. I’ve witnessed solid community groups- especially in rural areas – working tirelessly to improve local living conditions with the help of governmental sponsorship. I’ve participated in social forums, eaten food at subsidised prices, accompanied friends to state clinics to be treated for free. I’ve watched the growth of cultural movements nurtured by youth and creativity. I’ve seen empowerment – talked to people who feel empowered – by Chávez’s controversial politics. I’ve taught in a higher education mission, offering university courses to those most geographically isolated. I’ve travelled cheaply in state-subsidised airplanes, bought books sold at dirt low prices, and watched the Venezuelan Symphonic Orchestra perform for free. These were my ‘buts’ for those against Chavismo. These were my justifications, the thoughts of my devil’s advocate, the fairy dust that cured.
Seven years on, I dedicate my ‘buts’ to those still dreaming. Because along with the good things I’ve seen – and there are more to add to the list – I’ve seen too many bad things that tip the scales. I’ve felt sky-high inflation make the weekly food shop grate. I’ve watched those closest to me work tirelessly in state education and go for a year – twelve months – without a single cent of pay. I’ve watched a man die after a simple misdiagnosis at one of Chávez’s health missions. I’ve seen rubbish pile up on street corners and have witnessed a three-day power cut. I’ve been subject to water rationing and have seen supermarket shelves empty of products. I’ve heard more than one mother cry at her son’s funeral, his killer free and unpunished in the barrio so celebrated by the government. I’ve been forced to pass students lagging through each step of the university mission, “because that’s the way it works”. I’ve walked through open sewers in the hills of Caracas. I’ve seen the black market for dollars expand from Bs.4 in 2006 to Bs.25. I’ve physically climbed across landslides that the government has been unable to clear. I’ve seen an alarming level of aggression, from both sides, develop between chavistas and the opposition. I’ve read threats of violence, from both sides, promising war and divine justice. I’ve seen the manipulation of cult adoration, I’ve watched ambitions crumble, I’ve seen humble people, one by one, abandon chavismo with nowhere else to go.
And now, on one side, I watch a flagrant abuse of the Venezuelan Constitution. Nicolas Maduro has accepted the invented role of the “Assuming President of the Republic”, allowing him to stand as presidential candidate for the April elections. By law, a vice-president cannot run for this role. By law, Diosdado Cabello – president of the National Assembly – should now be running the country. By law, Chávez should have been sworn in on January 10th. By law, the presidential elections should take place before April 5th, not on the 14th. But none of that seems to matter. Maduro has declared his decision to stand; Maduro will probably win.
On the other side, I watch Henrique Capriles state his intention to run for the opposition. I hear his followers’ elated reactions, listen to them repeat his words, and worry that their relationship with him comes alarmingly close to that of chavistas with Chávez. Capriles declares that he is no God, and yet by some he is treated as such: he is Venezuela’s solution, he is unity, he is peace. I follow his discourse, convinced of his good intentions but unconvinced by his policies beyond charisma. I hear the cheers and fireworks that explode outside my apartment once his declaration finishes. I wonder if Venezuelan politics has ever been, or ever will be, capable of surmounting personality. I wonder the same of our politics back home. I wonder how I would vote if I could. I wonder if supporters of Chávez in Europe would accept the living conditions here that hit the poorest hardest. I wonder what will happen. I wonder if I’m wrong.