Why Venezuela is no country for old men
On a recent trip to the border between Brazil and French Guiana I met a 72-year-old Venezuelan pensioner I will not name to protect him. He had left Caracas a few days before the vote on a constituent assembly that formally turned Venezuela into a failed state-cum-dictatorship. He did so to avoid having to vote.
Days earlier, during a mock ballot, red-clad chavista officials warned they would strip him of his $7 monthly pension if he did not show up. "I was not going to vote to turn my country into a declared dictatorship. This way, I can prove I was outside the country, so couldn't vote." It was a cunning move.
But there was another pressing reason. He is diabetic, and in a country where medicine shortages have already cost many lives, he was running low on insulin. In a van between Cayenne, the capital of the French overseas territory, and the jungle border with Brazil, he described the challenges: back-breaking trips on buses, sweaty shared cabs, and steamy river boats up the Amazon.
When I met him, he had already been on the road for two weeks. But he was unable to find his medicine in the Brazilian cities of Manaus and Santarém. When he arrived in Cayenne, where EU regulations apply, they asked him for a prescription which he did not have. After spending €75 on a hotel more than 10 times his monthly pension — he was going to try his luck in Brazil's Belém.
The threat of more US sanctions weighs on Caracas, and Venezuela's rebel attorney-general has spoken out in Brazil, fanning accusations of heavy corruption against president Nicolás Maduro and the deputy president of the socialist party, Diosdado Cabello. But the world should not lose focus on people like this pensioner.
Venezuela’s population continues to suffer as deprivation, hunger, persecution, and state-fuelled violence increase, while civil liberties are violated. Rights groups' reports of torture by state agents on political foes abound. Protests that have left 120 people dead have, naturally, lost steam and in the face of the regime’s apparatus, the opposition is weak. Then, thugs could easily shrug off targeted sanctions.
Nearby former dictator, Suriname’s Dési Bouterse, who was accused of involvement in the massacre of political opponents in 1982 and sentenced in absentia on drugs charges by a Dutch court in 1999, was elected president of his country and is still in office.
The soft-spoken man does not think anyone has a viable solution on how to get rid of Maduro and his thuggish retinue. Neither do I. My personal experience — born and raised under the boot of the Argentina juntas and with my mother fleeing the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain — offers little insight to the current mess. “Venezuela is now a dictatorship, but calling it a totalitarian state is nonsense,” says Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, who follows the country closely.
“Venezuela's state apparatus is simply not capable of establishing anything resembling totalitarianism.”
As we got off a boat crossing the Oiapoque river from “France” into Brazil, I turned around to pay the boatman. When I turned back, the pensioner had simply vanished, as if he were a vision. All I could think was that, despite all his woes, he never stopped thinking that he and Venezuela would endure.
"Venezuela is not a country for an old man like me. It is not a country for anyone who is decent, just for those desgraciados who have ruined it. But it’s home,” he said.
Showing me a half-full shot of insulin and a wad of worthless bolívares he carried around for when he re-enters Venezuela, he cited a well-known regional adage: “No hay mal que dure cien años, ni cuerpo que lo resista.” I can only hope he is right. And that his body hangs on to witness it.