Beatriz Sogbe: I Am Living in Hell

For weeks Venezuela has experienced problems with its electrical grid. Above, a blackout in Caracas. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Beatriz Sogbe, Caracas, April 7, 2019 — A few years ago I did not understand how Cubans could survive on ten dollars a month. I could not see how anyone could survive on that amount. But now I understand. The observations here are not intended for Venezuelans, nor Cubans for that matter. They are for those in other countries who do not understand what this means, that they might be more tolerant of Venezuelans who have had to emigrate, that they might better understand them and be able to reflect on what it is like to live, day after day, in hell.

How do they do it? How do they live on ten dollars a month? First they are subdued with a subsidy. The oppressor delivers a little food (not much and with zero protein), some medicines, wretched but very cheap services, free homes for a few (but not for everyone, though there is always the hope that the others will one day get one). They have no other option. Both the haves and the have-nots accept these things. They must accept them or die. Their priorities change. Two kilos of rice become preferable to cash. With money, you never know if you will be able to buy the desired goods. With rice in hand, at least you know you will have something to eat.

For the last fifteen days we have not had uninterrupted electrical service. The sleepless hours are beginning to run together. Since the first outage there has been a series of blackouts, which have not only complicated existence but also coexistence.

Not having electricity means there is no phone service, no landline, no cellular. Those with electric stoves have been unable to cook. And since it is delivered by pump, there is no water either. One can still get water get water, but it is now delivered by truck at unaffordable prices. And its level of purity is always suspect but, after fifteen days, that is of little importance.

Elevators do not work. This means someone living on a fifteenth floor must use buckets to carry water up the stairs, in the dark, for bathing, flushing the toilet and cooking. It means getting up one morning to find there is no running water, then returning home and — as in times past — going to the river with a pitcher to look for water. Only there are now no rivers, or wells. They dried up because the forests were not preserved.

All that remains is a trail of destruction left by of the furious extraction of gold and diamonds. In the streets vermin stare out from the sewer grates, hungry rodents in search of food who no longer scurry through the drainpipes. Daily life is becoming hell. It’s like returning, in the blink of an eye, to the Stone Age.

If there is a medical emergency, there is no way to call an ambulance. Or the police. Or the fire department. There is no medical care at hospitals because, after so many days, the backup generators that a few of them had have stopped working. As a result, many patients are not receiving dialysis, neonatal patients cannot be placed in incubators and those who require artificial respirators are in agony. The number of deaths is unknown. And dying is forbidden because no death certificates are being issued and there are no morgues to store the dead. The gravediggers have no way to get there and the cemeteries have been closed for days.

There is no gasoline because gas stations cannot pump it. There is no cash because there are no automatic teller machines. There are no checkout counters nor a way to pay for anything. Vendors only accept cash or dollars. What yesterday was astronomically expensive now costs five times more. A pound of meat is worth more than a work of art.

Our relatives abroad are in despair. They have no way of knowing how their loved ones, most of whom are elderly, are faring. Nevertheless, something springs up unexpectedly: solidarity. We recognize each other. And those who show no signs of disgust, disgust us.

The general outlook is bleak. The Metro is not running and there is little public transportation. People, selfless and silent, walk to their jobs. Most carry empty bottles, hoping to bring home a little drinking water from their places of work.

But what is most striking are people’s attitudes. They walk without hope, without spirit. Their body posture gives them away. They are robots. The most desperate rummage feverishly through the trash.

People must travel across town to a mobile phone center in the hope that, once there, they can reach their relatives abroad to let them know they are still alive. All the shops are closed. The absence of information about what is happening is disheartening and exasperating. Radio batteries are exhausted. Candles are used up. Perishable food in the refrigerator is rotting. There is no ice. People burn garbage because there is no trash collection. A grayish sky hangs over the city while a reddish sun presages death.

When electricity returns, the news is bad. Friends have died. We take stock of which home appliances have survived the onslaught. No one is happy. There is only despair and rage. The sudden changes in voltage indicate this was only the prelude to purgatory. We know when it started but not when it will end. And that miracles do not exist.

After a second blackout, at neighbors meetings residents enumerate how things are in each part of the city. And though electricity returns intermittently, water does not because it relies on pumps. The equipment is old and has not been maintained. Its useful life ended many years ago so it now only works precariously.

The neighborhood gatherings now seem pointless because the local mayors cannot do anything. Why do they want to be mayors if they have no ambulances, no fire engines, no water delivery trucks? They don’t even have the power to tear down an illegal structure on protected public lands. They have become merely decorative figures.

For writers, not having a computer is a big deal. Our handwriting is now so mangled and illegible from lack of practice that even we ourselves cannot read it. Nevertheless, we still want to provide a first-hand account of this hell because, as we have been told, we are living in extraordinary times. I hope what happened in the movie Memories of Underdevelopment by Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea does not happen to us. In the film an intellectual stays behind on the embattled island because he senses that something is about to happen. But nothing ever does.

There are two activities in which we try to find shelter: reading and gardening. The former has becomes tiresome. We are not used to reading in dim light so we go outside. Nights are arduous. There is no enjoyment to be had in watching the stars or the fleeting fireflies, only despondency over not knowing when electricity will return. And when it does, there is anxiety because we do not know just when it will go off again.

Then we try another approach: connecting switches, washing clothes, cleaning bathrooms. It is the beginning of dry season. There is calm. There is no wind but there are mosquitoes and heat. The darkness, deep and gloomy, induces fear rather than melancholy. Suddenly, we see the lights go on in one area. But, after a while, they go off again. There is little hope that we will get electricity anytime soon. And then the conjecture starts. Who will they kill? Who will die? What will happen? We think of hospital patients, of political prisoners, of their relatives, of the elderly who do not have access their medications. Uncertainty can also be deadly.

We change tack. In the morning we decide to work diligently in the garden. But it languishes. The birds are not singing; they only emit moans. Only turkey vultures are hanging around. A gardener without water is condemned to watch the plants she has lovingly tended die. A heavy avocado tree has dried up. So too has the beloved jasmine, never again to emit its intoxicating aroma. Only its woody scorched stem remains. The gardener must content herself with raking dry leaves and observing, with astonishing pain, the fruit of years of effort vanish within a few days. It is one more torture, like watching the forest fires burning Ávila National Park on different fronts. The fire at night burns in the view.

Electricity comes and goes. Fifteen days have gone by. There is still no water. There is no internet. The disdain of our rulers elicits more indignation than hate. What kind of people are these for whom the pain of their subjects means nothing. Are they like Nero who enjoyed watching Rome burn? They only care about holding onto power, whatever the cost. Yet this is not a war. Or is it? I finally conclude I am living in hell.

This article was originally published in La Patilla.


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