Sunday, October 6, 2013

Xmas vigil

Merida, Venezuela (December 22, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 24, 2004 ---

My family in Italy always celebrates Christmas with a lunch on December 25th. In Venezuela the important day is the Christmas vigil on December 24th. Mayli's family reunites on December 24th at her grandmother’s house (“La Finca”) to spend the vigil together and eat sancocho (chicken soup) and hallacas (hallacas explained here). Venezuela is a conservative catholic country (even though protestant evangelical churches are making serious inroads), and the church is still a powerful force in the society. As in Italy, you can find churches everywhere, even at a pass over 4,000m (12,000ft) as in the photo on the left. So Christmas is deeply felt, and in Mayli’s family is very important to be at La Finca for the Christmas hallacas.

Pico del Aguila
The whole day was in preparation to this event, with the exception of a short visit to Alejandra (one of the physicists in this photo) who had also returned to Merida, and was preparing her hallacas with some friends. I showed her the photos on this blog, and some of the comments I posted triggered a discussion about politics (about the “bolivarian process” from the point of view of university professors), unfortunately cut short because we had to leave early for la Finca.

Mayli’s family is quite large, and most of it tries to be at La Finca on Christmas night. Of course it is impossible for everybody to give presents to everybody else, and this logistic problem has been solved with the “intercambio de los regalitos”. It works like this: each person is randomly designed to get a present for another component of the family, getting in exchange a present from a third family member. This way everybody gets and receives one present. Mayli and I had two of many Mayli’s cousins as present recipients. After the intercambio we sat down for the midnight dinner, where again I was involved in a conversation about politics with one of Mayli’s uncles (again about the “bolivarian process”, but from the point of view of a priest working in a poor neighborhood).

All these talks about politics are something new. The first time I visited the country, maybe 6 or 7 years ago, nobody was talking about politics. One of the consequences of the strong polarization of venezuelan society (some say this polarization was created by the divisive attitude of the president, but I think these divisions were already present before, just hidden), is that politics is now an important issue concerning everybody. People is often wary to talk freely, because the polarization is so strong that more than one such discussion has ended with fist fights between members of the same family. Once triggered, however, people is likely to vent off their frustrations, especially with an outsider like me who is happy to listen to both sides.

To understand what is really going on in this country one would have to spend several months traveling in every corner of its territory, visiting each small village in the Andes, the flooded plains or the Amazon, or living a few months in the slums surrounding Caracas where human life is not worth less a dollar. Touching with one’s hand the situation of the 80% of the venezuelan population living below the line of poverty is probably the only way to go past the propaganda from both sides, and to form an independent idea of what it is really happening. As a tired astrophysicist visiting family during Christmas holidays, this is however not going to happen, and all I can do is to listen to middle class people seeing the situation through the lenses of their own situation, which is definitely only one side of the story. It doesn't work very well, because the segregation in Venezuelan society is very strong, and people of different classes barely talks to each other, and when they do is never on equal basis.

Differences, however, do exists. People removed from the daily lives of poor classes tends to complain that the government is not doing enough, and that the measures that are actually carried on are just populist acts which do not change the roots of underdevelopment of the country, while the corruption and inefficiency is as as rampant as ever. Other people who have instead a greater contact with the struggling lower classes generally have a more positive view of the government initiatives, and reports a significative improvement in their lives.

Who is right? Probably both, from their own point of view. Maybe it is true that all the “misiones” are just “pañitos calientes”, palliatives that won't solve the structural problems of the country. But is also true that previous governments, when the poor where rioting for food, were sending the army to shoot them down. Now the army is used to distribute food and build schools. Too little? Maybe. Better than nothing? Maybe.

Merry Christmas.

--- Updates (October 6, 2013) ---

If you want a (very limited) assessment of what 10 years of "misiones" have produced, look at the "updates" in this post. It doesn't look pretty, and the current situation vindicates who was asserting that the "misiones" would be of little significance in solving the structural problems of the country.

Certainly from the point of view of the middle class and intellectual elite of the country, Venezuela has degraded significantly in terms of services, infrastructure and development in general. Corruption may have changed color, but is more than alive. The resentment towards the ideological absolutism of the "chavistas" is fully justified, and engendered a society less open and free than before. It is not surprising that Venezuela is suffering a brain drain caused by the double punch of a deep economic crisis and a toxic atmosphere where, if you are not aligned to the ideological purism of the government party, you are out of luck.

What I cannot assess, is how the developments of these ten years have been felt by the impoverished classes, the traditional strong supporters of the government. Despite their inefficiencies, the "misiones" are still there. During the last elections (the first after Chavez's death), the government still got a lot of votes (who really won is a different issue that I don't need to discuss now), suggesting that at least for part of the population, "chavismo" is still popular despite the shortages, the brownouts and obvious evidences of government corruption. Given the current long-term unsustainability of the government "misiones", how long is this going to last?

Merida, Venezuela (December 23, 2004)


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