A chronicle of a journalist from the AFP news agency
The first thing I remember about my masochist relationship with Venezuela is blood stains on the floor of a plaza in Caracas.
By Maria Isabel Sanchez (AFP)
HAVANA TIMES – With the image of a virgin, some flowers and some candles, they had improvised a small altar right in the place where three people had been shot dead the previous day. Those were the turbulent days of the failed coup d’état against President Hugo Chávez in 2002.
Since then, nothing between that country and myself has been normal.
After having been sent to Venezuela several times to cover special events, including the death of Chavez and the election of Nicolas Maduro in 2013, I came to occupy the address of the AFP office in the first days of September 2015, just when the crisis began to greatly worsen.
Without respite from beginning to end, Venezuela just bade me farewell in March with the worst blackouts in its history.
It was three and a half year, but in Venezuela time passes differently; one day is like a week, one week like one month; one month like one year; and one year like one decade. The ones I was there seemed like an eternity.
Venezuela has been, without a doubt, my greatest professional and personal challenge, to understand it, explain it and, at the same time, survive it.
Huge lines in supermarkets to buy a liter of oil, corn flour for arepas or toilet paper impacted me upon arrival. That and the feeling of always being in danger, the possibility of being stalked by someone on a motorcycle who would point his weapon at me to steal my cell phone.
During my work there, I saw a country collapse. I lived the Venezuela of the farewells, of the depressing hospitals, of the supermarkets and trucks of food escorted by military, of the looting, of barter, of the purchases with fingerprint readers, of the empty shelves and also of the shelves full of things that most Venezuelans cannot buy.
I went to the Venezuela of Lidubina, an old woman from the Petare neighborhood who has lived her last years in anguish because she cannot find medicines for her hypertension and varicose ulcer. There was Marling, who, fatigued with her seven-months-pregnant belly, exploded in anger when she learned that the diapers she was going to buy were gone. She had the number 177 painted on one arm, her place in the line that had formed for several hours under a blazing sun.
I was also in the Venezuela of taking packages of devalued bills to the market, where I didn’t know the new bolivars because there simply weren’t any. Before the government removed five zeros from the currency, I also went through what Elizabeth did. When buying an egg carton for 3 million bolivars (she) told me indignantly – but without losing the humor: “We are a country of millionaires! ”
I admired the ingenious Venezuela of Nancy, who took a boat to go offshore to catch the Internet signal, pass the bank cards through the dataphone while rocking on the waters, and charge customers for fried fish and beers. With those sales she earned her living in a coastal village at the foot of the mountains.
I feared the Venezuela of Alejandra, who at the age of 14 had already felt the insane violence in her neighborhood when she saw a friend kill another with one shot. I feared the Venezuela of the mafioso, the violent and chaotic sub-world of Ender, a young small-scale miner who knew that, among gold, he could find death.
I lived the Venezuela of the marches and counter marches, the polarized land in which one side only thinks of annulling the other. I lived the Venezuela of the clouds of tear gas and intense sunsets, of the two presidents, the two speeches, of hunger and opulence, of parallel and also contradictory realities.
Whenever I left the country, without exception, people asked me about Venezuela – if it was true that there was nothing to eat, if people supported Maduro or the opposition, if there was going to be a coup d’état or an invasion, if I knew how it was all going to end.
Exhausted, many times I thought that no matter how much was written about this country it was never enough or nobody was going to understand it. I also thought that everyone ends up reading what they want to believe.
Venezuela is a volatile country. When more than two days pass without the two poles attacking each other, without the opposition announcing a new offensive with which this is all now going to end or without Maduro appearing on television promising prosperity once again, it is inevitable to think that something is about to happen. And something always happens. Here calm is suspect and turbulence normal.
This is the country where political rhetoric stuns day and night, of unusual dramas and never-ending anguish. In my years in Venezuela, something else always happened and it was always worse.
I don’t remember ever having felt so much stress or so much fatigue in my life. Due to the time difference, I was awakened early, startled with e-mails from the AFP headquarters in Paris or Montevideo; something to ask, something to comment on or something to suggest.
At night, the workday continued at home. There were countless occasions when, just at the end of the day when we were about to leave the office or had just arrived at our homes and about to dine, the president appeared on the national television network, without notice, sometimes for the second or third time in the day. There was nothing to do but to forget the rest, open the computer, record, write and send.
By repeatedly hearing so much insufferable propaganda on the official television, I surprised myself by singing while driving or cooking, the sticky refrain of the government songs. Likewise, the opposition slogans such as “¡Vamos bien!” (it’s going well), even when everything went wrong.
I lost the battle against the addiction to compulsively review Twitter or WhatsApp and also against insomnia. Journalists in Venezuela usually have short nights of sleep. During mine, I often had trouble sleeping as I thought of an idea for an article or of a problem in the office, waiting for the adrenaline discharge to be extinguished at some hour of the early morning.
Without being able to do much more than wait, the hours during which some of my colleagues were held by the military or were besieged by armed civilian groups (colectivos) during various coverages inside and outside Caracas, became eternal. And I was paralyzed for a few seconds every time I heard on the television the president or another official accusing the international press of something.
Bearing the pressure of a country on the front pages, which all judge and of which all have an opinion (with or without information), was as heavy as everyday life. Managing an office in an upside-down economy like Venezuela was a true exercise in juggling and creativity. The expense budget calculated one day was devoured by hyperinflation the next.
During the different times of shortages, coffee, sugar and toilet paper for the office had to be sought out on the black market, and eggs, chicken or meat for the house in a hidden parking lot or in group sales on Whatsapp.
I had already worked for more than six years in Cuba and the shortages did not scare me but living in a city full of fear of the “malandros” (delinquents), with desolate and dark streets from 7:00 in the evening in a self-imposed curfew, became stifling.
With everything, between so much hustle in the office or in the house, we still found time to admire Ávila Hill and the rainbows over the city, to celebrate birthdays cutting a cake, to laugh and to share some beers when they could be found.
The last three months of my time in Venezuela were crazy, it was a dizzying sequence of political events that prevented me from leaving this country in peace.
For weeks, as in the four months of protests in 2017, Venezuela was again among the dominant coverage issues of the AFP in the world. The hardest thing became how to feed an unstoppable demand for information while the forces, the spirits and the ideas no longer gave more.
And when I thought it had been enough, I still had things to live before I left the country.
It was 4:55 in the afternoon of Thursday, March 7, 2019 when the alarms in our office jumped. We thought it was another of the power outages that happened occasionally in Caracas for a few minutes or a couple of hours. We soon realized that it affected almost the entire country. That first blackout lasted almost a week. Another worsening phase in the endless Venezuelan crisis began there.
Without energy, the water supply collapsed (pumping in cities and buildings requires electricity), likewise transportation, telephone communications, the Internet and commerce.
When there are almost no bolivars in banknotes, transactions with cards or bank transfers are indispensable in everyday life. Because banks and electronic sales points did not work, we went from the “enemy dollar” era to a dollarized economy during the blackout, where even ice was sold in dollars.
With our office building disabled, like almost all in Caracas, we had to move with our work team to several rooms of a hotel to report on the chaos of a paralyzed country; sick people suffering in hospitals, desperate people looking for water, workers walking kilometers with the subway closed. Many feared that the food they had bought with so much difficulty would be damaged in their thawed refrigerators.
In the hotel we had water, food and electricity supplied by generating plants, but we struggled with the communication difficulties to be able to transmit. At night, some of us returned to the darkness of our homes. Mine was two blocks away, but I had to drive because of the insecurity.
Illuminated with a flashlight, every night I went up ten floors to reach my apartment, carrying in my backpack a laptop, cell phone, tape recorder, a satellite phone (in case a worse emergency occurred), a notebook and communication devices that worked very badly and sometimes did not work at all.
After eating in a hurry by candlelight, I wrote the main article which, in the early morning, gave continuity to the last 24 hours of the news that was, once again, dominant worldwide.
I was stressed dealing with the Internet signal that came and went and watching the last bars of the cell phone signal disappear.
The silence of the night was interrupted by the sound of power generators that certain buildings had, by the echo of one or another insult shouted against Maduro and by the metallic pounding of the pots and pans with which some Venezuelans protested from the windows of their apartments from time to time in the complicity of the shadows.
Some colleagues who slept in their houses bathed in the hotel. One brought meat for their family‘s consumption to keep it in the coolers in the rooms and another went home one day with bottles to load water, camouflaged in a large backpack without security noticing it.
Sometimes the light returned in the early morning only to go back off a couple of minutes later. The first time I managed to rejoice, then I did not flinch, restrained by frustration.
We had the first blackout and then another, but, because of being fed up, I felt it was worse.
One of my bosses in Montevideo, joking one day, compared me to a prisoner who puts marks on the wall to keep track of the days remaining until freedom. I confess that I came to count, in the last month, the days remaining before leaving.
My farewell amongst colleagues and friends was in the dark, watching from the 19th floor of the hotel, the city in darkness.
On April 1, in the wee hours, when I left the country for good, I could see people in the tunnels on the way to the airport gathering the water that fell from a spring. So I said goodbye to a Venezuela in darkness. Resigned, I said to myself, “It could not have been different!”