A 90-Year-Old Goes Shopping in Venezuela

En Venezuela, ni los ancianos se salvan de hacer largas colas por la comida. (Maduradas)
Even the elderly, the most frail among us, must suffer through Venezuela’s punishing queues. (Maduradas)

EspañolA few days ago, I went to get groceries with my father. This wouldn’t really merit an article if it weren’t for the fact that my father is an elderly man, aged a very respectable 90. Papá was born nearly a quarter into last century and has been “fortunate” enough to see how the country has transformed from the idyllic landscape he saw in his childhood to the violent urban state we now live and suffer in as Venezuelans.

My father can still move about relatively well, though slowly; he walks using a cane and suffers from knee problems. He had surgery a few months ago to remove a cancerous tumor from his neck.

You might say that a person with health issues like these should be resting, enjoying his retirement, and definitely not running errands. And it is not because I am heartless or have some perverse or vengeful motive that I take the old man along with me to buy groceries, even with his slow pace and curved back.

The truth is that, in this incomprehensible country we live in, the authorities have limited purchases of some staple products, such as corn flour and powdered milk, to specific days and according to the last digit on one’s ID card. In other words, only the people with the right ID numbers can buy items on a particular day, and in person.

This is a point-of-sale requirement imposed by state regulators. Together with fingerprint scanners used in pharmacies and supermarkets, this policy is reminiscent of the outdated rationing cards used on a notorious Caribbean island which shall remain nameless.

The only difference is that in our oil-rich nation the regime has the luxury of drawing on modern technology to humiliate the consumer.

My father is not, of course, the only elderly person in the queue. There are some who look much more broken and disheveled, and often without anyone to accompany them. Along with the weight of many years lived, they must carry the weight of the few products they are able to purchase on their own.

I am a regular citizen who believes in democracy, and I strongly believe that one of the basic responsibilities conferred upon public officials is the protection of the people, to guarantee their safety and well-being. So I am perplexed as to how a government that claims to be humanist resists policies that would serve the interests of the people.

Public servants should see to it that people have more free time, or can at least shop without restrictions that destroy productivity and are a permanent attack on the private sector. We have become a port economy, dependent on imports for almost everything.

There I was with Papá, buying four packages of corn flour, amid pervasive annoyance, people cutting in, and smug expressions stamped on the civil and military officials managing the queue. I must confess that I feel a certain kind of rage when I must stand in a line that is watched over by armed military men intent on keeping order.

As I remembered the song by Piero: “viejo mi querido viejo (old man, my dear old man)/ahora ya caminas lerdo (now you walk slowly and clumsily)/como perdonando el tiempo (as if leaving time aside),” I saw the minutes pass by and asked myself: how many man hours do we Venezuelans spend standing in line? How does this affect productivity? It’s no wonder we are the country with Latin America’s highest rates of inflation.

Among the bad tempers of the people who crowd around trying to acquire the subsidized commodities, I cannot help but wonder about my country’s future. How these subsidies are an example of this perverse paternalism we all complain about yet enjoy as Venezuelans. I cannot grasp what kind of society my son will have to face in the future.

At the end of the day, the past few years have brought undeniable changes, on top of the visible deterioration of infrastructure and decreased quality of life for the masses. That includes the unmeasured increase in violence, the overabundance of crime, and the proliferation of shortages. We live in times of a Dark King Midas.

We have achieved what had once seemed impossible: we have killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. One can now understand that government action goes well beyond discourse; it is one thing to exert power, to impose naked physical coercion. It is another thing entirely to create a government, and even more difficult to create a good government.

Government action requires the call to collective effort, building a common ground. It requires an encounter among those who make up a society. It requires tolerance and understanding of differences.

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It is a very harmful practice — a practice stemming from fascism, even — to divide society into “goodies and baddies,” into those chosen and those excluded. Society flourishes under the law, where there is inclusion; where public opinion can be expressed freely and without fear; where the press is not subject to intimidation; where diverse and multiple interests can bloom; where people have adequate access to goods and services.

When these things are not present, society languishes, becomes depressed, becomes silenced.

I always found it interesting how mother Russia, which produced a handful of the most important writers in the 19th century under czarism, became slowly depressed and silenced under the Soviet system. From what I can tell, this socialist era did not leave us any redeemable literature or artistic accomplishment.

This happened through a brutal taming of people’s consciences and actions through fear. Fear is a breeding ground for totalitarianism. The kind of fear that makes people not see anything, not do anything, not say anything. The kind of fear that silences and kills the functioning spaces in society.

As I reflected upon these ideas, time passed. Meanwhile, my father shifted his weight from one leg to the other, aided by his cane, to relieve some of his weariness. We finally made it to the handling area; he showed his ID; and they gave him his small packs of corn flour. “At least we made it before they ran out,” he said.

“There are days when the most insignificant things seem to brighten one’s day,” I thought, but I smiled at my old man and respectfully kept quiet as we got ready to pay and go back home. After all, going grocery shopping in Venezuela isn’t a walk in the park.

Translated by Vanessa Arita.

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