Chavez Se Murió: Thoughts from a Venezuelan Ex-Pat

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It’s sunny on the sleepy sands of Mui Ne beach in Vietnam. The tourists have barely awoken to another day of lobster-ing by the sea. There’s a young woman crying behind her sunglasses. She walks in her Venezuelan-sized bikini. The whole thing is ridiculous, and maybe even –thanks to esas licras en oferta– obscene.

I’d awoken to the news that Hugo Chávez Frías had been re-elected president of the re-named Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The friend I was traveling with took one look at me, handed me a coconut, and suggested we go windsurfing that afternoon.

It was worrisome; she had a point. Why was I crying? I don’t live in Venezuela anymore. I have the privilege of being outside of it all while there are millions in Venezuela living the revolution. A revolution that has made millions who felt forgotten feel empowered, but that has also brought paralyzing insecurity to my parents, to my friends and their parents, to people I love.

I was reminded then and want to write today of the tricky space I occupy as “one who’s left.” I left believing that the life I wanted was no longer possible in my country. Leaving was the hardest decision I’ve made and one that I continue to make constantly. I am one of those who “escaped.” I am one of those who “fled.” I am the “coward who ran away,” soy la “golpista, escuálida, fascista, oligarca, imperialista.” Stop looking. I am all and none of these things.

I am a ball of anger and resentment towards a man I never met but who controlled my country since I was in second grade (I’ll soon be a year out of college). To me, he is no hero.

In my opinion (and these three words are key) he was the first Venezuelan leader to attend to the grotesque inequality that exists in my country, an inequality I believe is unfair and needs to be addressed. However, his attempts at reform were shortsighted and ended up squandering the nation’s resources, not because these resources were spent on the poor, but because he allowed infrastructure to crumble, hospitals to rot, crime to soar. What help was provided came with strings attached; you had to be a follower to benefit, and signing a petition calling for a referendum could bar you from accessing a passport and government jobs. In addressing my country’s inequalities, Chávez created a system of dependency wherein the poor relied on him, for he is the party, the government; he is Venezuela, and we are all Chávez.

Unfortunately, that reliance has not been met with effective efforts to empower dependents so that they don’t have to rely on a government but on themselves to meet their needs.

What’s worse is that you could not disagree with the man’s economic policy, for that automatically made you a traitor. You could not dislike one initiative, for that made you a golpista. We hate traitors and golpistas in my country; in fact, we don’t like seeing them or hearing them, and in this spirit more than 30 radio stations and TV channels were closed during his presidency. It’s hard to find anything spewing out of public television nowadays that isn’t pro-government propaganda. And it goes both ways. We hate each other because of who we vote for, no matter who we vote for. My country remains divided among those who view Chávez as a father and those who view him as a curse, and unfortunately we view each other with deep mistrust.

And yet, it is not my goal today to have you agree with the way I feel about the Big C (or his death due to another Big C), but to explore what it means to feel so close to my country and know myself so far away.

To leave is to grow this strange self-promoting mass of guilt and nostalgia and relief that feeds unto itself, growing perpetually (like a cancer –dare I say it?). To begin with, there’s the guilt. The tug of family, the invisible pinch of my grandmother on my ears on birthdays –why aren’t you here mijita? There’s the guilt of wanting, desperately wanting, my country to be different but knowing I didn’t stay to fight for that change, that I felt too weak, too vulnerable, too young, too alive to risk a life imprisoned, cut short.

There’s me questioning whether I have the right to an opinion, to strong feelings about what’s going on in Venezuela, when there’s a limited scope of actions that I can engage in from afar. Essentially, there’s wanting change and being absent from the one place where I can fight for it.

There’s the guilt of leaving and the relief of escaping. There’s the memory of my mother half-joking, telling me I’ve been raised to become a product for exportation. There’s the invaluable peace of feeling free to move. I found in New York for the first time a territory that was mine for the taking, whereas Caracas was always full of walls put in place for my own protection, often by my own, immense fear.

Underlying everything is the fact that I would love to return. Que, como a todo venezolano, donde sea que se encuentre, la posibilidad de una hallaca de la abuela, de una arepita, de un atardecer magnífico sobre el Ávila, me pone a punta de lágrimas. No, I lie. It brings me to sobs, incontenibles, without sunglasses to hide them.

And now, Huguito, el rey if there ever was one, is gone. And I’m one of the few? The many? Who won’t be on any pictures on any front pages shedding tears for my chubby ex-prez. I won’t be toasting either; I cried at his re-election but cannot celebrate his death. Personally, I’d like to believe that like all great men and women (greatly intelligent, greatly divisive, greatly influential, and I will add for myself: greatly, unbearably, destructive), he will live out an eternity in dust and plant fertilizer. All the same, my condolences go out to those who love, respect, and admire him (if you believe there is a Heaven, then may he be there).

What is interesting to me is that those of us who want change have had to wait for the death of a human being to begin feeling like that change is possible. That is no victory, no cause for toasting. God knows why my thoughts can’t stop swimming but they think of change, of how, of what I should be willing to do if that change is to happen. The fact is that a lot of us who want change are not home anymore; we want it from the safety of our browser refresh buttons. We live in places where we can buy any cereal we want two blocks from our homes, so Venezuela can remain our passion, but it doesn’t have to be our priority. And if things are to change (I’m not saying that they must or should, as much as I want them to) this just won’t do.

And now, to join the millions of media outlets and twitter users and facebook updaters everywhere who’ve felt the need to weigh in on the life of our own controversial Hugo:

HUGO CHÁVEZ FRÍAS ( 28 July, 1954 – March 5, 2013)

It was like growing up in a country where magic still exists. The fixes were absurd, and still, the country remains transfixed to this day. Zeroes were hacked off prices to “end inflation,” the man put up a shiny new billboard publicizing the bridge he’d built (only after the old one had been so neglected it collapsed), tons of meat spoiled rotten in the ports while millions starved, there were rumors of guerrillas and prisoners that beat armies and cancers implanted by imperialist countries named after baseball teams. There was my house that was robbed, my friends and their parents and siblings who were shot or kidnapped.

Yet it was all done with such theatricality that, not only my country, but the world was/is mesmerized by this Robin Hood, this “Cristo de los pobres,” by his party that continues to ridicule the constitution Chávez wrote (after all, the constitution calls for the head of the congress, not Maduro, to be the interim president as we wait for elections.

And it will take magic to cure the broken, cancerous Venezuela Hugo left behind. It will take the breaking of a spell for millions to see the band-aids glued with oil holding the nation together. My only hope is that we don’t have to wait for another to die to begin, and that this Venezuela that Chávez broke dies with him.