HAVANA TIMES — The Venezuelan Observatory on Violence has announced that violent deaths in 2016 exceeded 28,000 which makes Venezuela the second country in the world with the highest rate of lethal deaths.
When I arrived in Caracas in 2010, I wrote an article in Havana Times where I made a comment about just how spine-chilling it was for me to find guards carrying long guns on a regular basis in the city center, disguised among attractive kids park rides, along boulevards, in stores; as if the country was at war. I commented on the fact that fighting violence with more violence would only lead to one thing: violence.
Nowadays, I walk straight past these armed men and sometimes, I don’t even notice anymore. While they continue to stir the same emotion of dread in me, I’m aware that there is a greater chance of being shot from a gun which isn’t visible, than by receiving a bullet from these showy machine guns (or whatever they’re called, I’m not interested in knowing the brands or names of these useless pieces of equipment). The likelihood of being hit by an invisible firearm rather than a government weapon, isn’t due to the greater degree of awareness those carrying them have, but more to do with the fact that there are more armed civilians around me. The reason?
Just leaving the house, although a stray bullet could make its way into my home, but I try not to think about that.
The truth is that the issue of walking about and being aware that assault is possible isn’t new for me, because while in Cuba firearms aren’t common, I was always very alert when walking down the street, because I used to almost always carry a camera on me, or because of the simple fact that I was a woman.
In Venezuela, violence against women is increasing every year; luckily for me, men here are a bit more fussy when it comes to picking out women, and as I am always a mess walking about – when compared to the demanding beauty standard of Venezuelan women – I have the advantage that the usual “Cuban” compliments won’t come my way. Clothes have also helped me to escape likely predators – and what I put down to luck, which we’re not going to tempt.
However, it’s incredible just how much we have to try and live “off the radar” so as to prevent being attacked. Somebody who has their phone stolen is often accused of being careless, who in their right mind would take out this phone on the street? The person who receives three bullets while having his car stolen at 3 AM in the morning: but who dares to be out on the street at this unholy hour?
Even though I am cautious, I’ve already begun to feel like going unnoticed with my neutral colored and cheap clothes isn’t going to be enough this year. While trucks carrying food or centers where food is sold have been attacked in various neighborhoods in different states, I usually see people, even families, picking out food from the garbage here in Caracas. One of the local buses where I live was attacked fairly recently and the thieves were much more interested in food parcels than they were in the small amount of cash the people in the bus could have.
Today in Venezuela, I’m more worried about them taking my weekly food shopping than I am about them taking my phone. Today, it’s more likely that somebody who I never would have thought would steal will rob me, because poverty levels have multiplied, because anybody who buys a couple of loaves of bread is watched with envy. Today, the chances of receiving a bullet have multiplied because people’s frustration levels have increased, because criminals are better armed, because the government is contributing to the spike in violence and hate starting off with its own institutions.
Personally, it’s become “normal” not to think about going out at night, to walk looking around me every so often, to walk on the alert of any crowd where a stray bullet or knife wound can escape (although you have to run away from these crowds in Cuba too), to not trust those who approach me on the metro; to avoid walking through certain areas, no matter how beautiful they look, to not dream about a home in the countryside, because the majority have been taken over by gangs and paramilitaries.
It’s true that a certain number of deaths in Venezuela stem from the conflict between gangs, but it’s also true that the legal system favors those who commit crimes and it’s only when they openly stand up to the political power or when the government has to “make an example” that more drastic measures are taken. It’s true that jails are crammed with criminals, but it’s also true that it is these same criminals who rule inside these facilities, and have weapons and power as if they were on the outside.
In 2016, group deaths began early with the massacre of illegal miners at the beginning of the year in Tumeremo, and closed with the OLP (a kind of Venezuelan Tropa de Elite) scandal and the discovery of a couple of mass graves in the East. As a side note, let it be known that none of the 12 people found dead in these mass graves had ANY kind of criminal background or arrest warrant on their head, but their bodies did have signs of torture. Operation Freedom has been the most controversial this year, but nothing seems to indicate that it will no longer be used, and much less that it will be even a palliative solution to Venezuela’s violence problem.
Meanwhile, for the time I have left in this country, I continue to rely on my luck, or any kind of spirit so that my death comes when it’s supposed to, and hopefully not at the hands of a crazy gangster.