CHRONICLE OF DEATHS UNTOLD
In Venezuela’s Thug State, Even the Morgues Don’t Work
Every actor who should have your back is either on the take or on the make, and all the basic features of society have been torn to shreds.
CARACAS, Venezuela—“Manuel’s mother died last night.”
This is what my friend texted me this morning, telling me about our colleague’s loss.
I’m just about to text my condolences when the phone pings again, and I see something I’ll never be able to unsee.
The body of a woman, covered by a thin white sheet, spread out on an old maroon couch. Next to her are plastic bottles that once contained some sort of off-brand soda, now filled with frozen water and used to keep the body of my friend’s mother from rotting in the heat.
I have spent almost two months in Venezuela and seen more atrocities than I expected in a lifetime, but this, this complete loss of human dignity, may be the worst yet.
A few weeks ago I visited a public hospital here in Caracas and next to it I saw the barred-up doors of the central morgue, closed for weeks because they lacked both refrigeration and personnel. At the time I was wondering what happened to a society with no means to care for the dead and now I have the answer, staring back at me from the screen of my phone.
The debate over Venezuela, especially in international media, has been a referendum on socialism and a way to reflect one’s own views off the surface of a broken country. As with everything else in this time of angry discourse and heightened rhetoric, Venezuela has become a partisan issue and a faraway place that can serve as a blunt ideological instrument with which one can bludgeon one’s enemies. And I’m guilty of that, along with the rest of them, or at least I was a few weeks ago. I came here to see the end of Socialism but what I found was something much more complicated and heartbreaking.
Venezuela is more than poverty, starvation and hyperinflation, much more than a dictatorship or political policies gone awry. This country suffers under a thug-state, where every actor that should have your back is either on the take or on the make and all the basic features of society have been torn to shreds. The result is a humanitarian disaster that has its people in a state of arrested development, unable to predict the next day or even the next couple of hours, while those who claim to know better debate their fate in forums that the Manuels of this world will never have access to.
Manuel can’t afford the cost of the cremation and funeral, a total of almost US$300, so his friends have pooled all their belongings to help him lay his last remaining relative to rest. In a country where 85 percent of the population lives beneath the poverty line of $6 a month, that amount of money is usually impossible to come by, and most end up burying their relatives where they can, as anonymously as most of them have lived.
The woman beneath the sheet is tiny, more like a teenage girl than an old woman, the only giveaway being a strand of gray hair just at the edge of the cloth’s yellowing embroidery. She spent her last 20 years watching the country she loved decay and her life along with it, and now her son is cooling her dead body with ice-filled plastic bottles as he cries tears of anger, impotence and loss.
It has been said that a society is judged by how it cares for those who cannot care for themselves, and by this measure Venezuela is truly a failed state. During my weeks here I have seen how the oldest and the youngest die in the streets from starvation and treatable diseases and now I am witnessing the most vulnerable of all–the lifeless body of a mother–meeting her maker with neither mercy nor grace.
These are the stories that go untold, as their actors are trapped in quiet anonymity. We journalists like to focus on the geopolitical implications, the rival leaders and the impending civil war but here, on an old couch in Caracas, lie the final consequences of this crisis. Manuel lost his mother and that should be enough for one young man to carry, but now in a country without even the most basic of resources, he carries the entire world.
It took two decades to get here: from the richest country in the region to a post-apocalyptic state. Two decades to get to a place where the living lack hope and the dead have no names. The people of Venezuela are prisoners of a political war, constantly being used as either tools or bad examples, and what they are owed now is to be helped without partisanship or prejudice.
I came here thinking I was witnessing a trial over political territory but now, two months later, I think it may be a test for humanity. The test is to learn how to see beyond individual leaders and old alliances and go back to the core belief that every human being deserves freedom and self-determination; shifting focus from what it would cost parties and politicians to support this people’s fight for freedom to what it costs these people if they don’t. And it seems as if the world may be failing that test now, right when it matters the most, by making Venezuela a symbol and allowing the faces of each person behind this tragedy to blur and become irrelevant.
Before I get the chance to reach out to Manuel, the electricity goes out again, for the fifth time in as many days. This national blackout along with a chronic water shortage is bringing an already crippled country to its knees. For Manuel, it means he will sit with his mother through the night in darkness, until she is taken away to a burial that he cannot afford.
The signal is out now, so I can’t reach my friend but even if I could I wouldn’t know how to console him. What are the words for what he is going through? What phrase can I utter to take away the pain of what is still to come? There is nothing to say and no way to say it, only silence and darkness as Manuel sits in wait by his mother’s side.