Elsewhere (Part Five): South America
I know very little about the history of South America although, unlike most of the other continents, I have actually been there. I briefly touched the tip of Columbia many years ago, wandering around on an excursion from a cruise ship like most of the drunken tourists, dreaming in the back of our minds of scoring some high quality cocaine. Of course we knew nothing of the nation, nor even the spot were we let off upon (Covenas). We were just a bunch of dumb Americans and Europeans trying to take a moment from our vacation to live inside a movie screen.
The other thing I experienced related to South America was on a different vacation (with the cruise it was really a tour of Central America, with a twist through the Panama Canal). I was in Aruba–this was many years ago, before I ever met my wife. Aruba was a cold, dreary island on a beach surrounded by pale Dutch nudists, all of them in their fifties, none of them particularly happy, bubbling with sarcastic laughter in their native tongue. At this time, in Venezuela, we were suddenly alerted to the fact that there had been a prison riot, and that a number of the criminals had broken free. Aruba is not particularly far away from Venezuela. We were warned. The authorities were taking this very seriously.
Other than this rather cartoonish experience, South America was a mystery to me, a place, to my historical mind, of bloody uprising and coups. Of drug cartels, international criminals and characters out of spy novels. The place seemed to me, as to many others so vastly unfamiliar with the terrain and culture, like the backdrop to either an action movie, or a horrifying political drama. It was all reduced to our American idea, filled with the propaganda of the moment, making villains out of everyone in order to help ourselves to feel slightly less safe.
But South America, of course, is far richer and more complex than these Hollywood cliches would have us believe. It is very rare, in fact, in any movie to find South Americans as heroes. There is usually an ominous look on their faces, or a recognizable scar, or the sharp suit of a well-armed gangster hovering in the background while the oily kingpin mocks whomever might dare to be challenging them. But that isn’t South America at all.
The people on this continent–and this crosses all national boundaries in numerous ways–are poor, struggling, and often very Catholic. Religion here seems to have a far more sincere attention: humane, hopeful, and free from much of the toxic fanaticism that transforms every idea into terrorism. This of course does not preclude the many nations spread across the continent from the numerous church controversies (including child sexual abuse by priests), but the organization, while mildly crumbling like everywhere else in the world, remains strong.
As recently as the 19th century, while Jesuits were touring around to convert everyone, any other religion was outlawed throughout the colonial areas. However, in more recent times, there has been the reemergence of what were once underground faiths, including a variety of indigenous religions more along the lines of tribal African beliefs than anything within the Judeo-Christian pantheon. Islam, of course, has spread rapidly, and Argentina has a relatively large Jewish population owning to mass immigration around the time Adolph Hitler came to power. There is also a widely growing atheism throughout the continent, despite the annual joy many of the Christian celebrations bring to people simply looking for a party.
But the problems in South America are rather dire in some spots. For today let us focus exclusively on Venezuela, because the literal collapse of their society is an actual possibility:
So the recent Presidential election crumbled Venezuela into chaos. The incumbent, Nicholas Maduro, had been a terrible President since the better organized but even further morally questionable Hugo Chavez died while still in office. Maduro, a half-hearted Communist, really had dictatorial ambitions that were less about state control, than about his control over every aspect of the nation.
Venezuela is filled with oil, which makes it a land of great interest to the larger world powers. Russia seemed to have a solid stake in these wares until the dictators decided to close the market and militarize their supplies. Ever since he was officially elected, Nicholas Maduro has been controversial. Barely winning the 2013 election (there are conspiracy theories, backed up by legitimate possibilities, that ballot stuffing was involved), Maduro immediately went about trying to bankrupt his political opposition. He also managed to arrest, imprison, and “disappear” a number of these individuals. It is believed that his aggressive, totalitarian acts, reminiscent of the barbaric dictators from forty or so years earlier, are the primary cause of Venezuela’s present economic collapse. Maduro has even been accused of intentionally causing this to gain more control over the desperate population.
Hunger is on the rise, with riots frequently overwhelming market areas with desperate people smashing windows and stealing bread, among other things, like Jean Valjean (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9781593080662&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used) just after the French Revolution. Of course those who were caught in these acts were generally executed on the spot. In fact in 2018 Amnesty International “accused Nicolas Maduro’s government of committing some of the worst human rights violations in Venezuela’s history.” Twenty-Two percent of the murders in Venezuela were committed by security forces in just one year. That number, it is believed as statistics have grown impossible to gather, has risen precipitously.
But that isn’t the worst of it for this nation of desperately hungry and poor people. The 2018 election watched the Venezuelan national assembly, controlled by the opposition party, invalidate Maduro’s re-election. It is very likely that Maduro lost the popular vote, but both sides–the opposition candidate, Juan Guaido–were accused of cheating. After all, the congress decided that their man (Guaido had been the leader of the assembly) was the winner without much investigation. And this caused the inevitable collapse of society.
Riots are now everywhere. Imposed blackouts have shut down most of industry, and jobless people roam around with nothing to do other than protest the state of their lives. Meanwhile Maduro, who remains tight with many of the military leaders he helped rise to power, is fomenting a coup to challenge the coup that kicked him out of office. Guaido was even briefly detained by some radical military officers, who were later fired by the administration. This was a pure media stunt whose impact was to further shatter the national consensus, with both sides now declaring their opposition presidents criminals.
Suddenly Maduro started accusing the US of backing the coup against him, of supplying finances and weapons, along with military direction and “humanitarian aid.” This is probably at least partially true. The Trump administration has taken a very hard line against Maduro, not so much because they disagree with his style of governance, but mostly as a way to exploit the Socialist label they are pinning on their own opposition, by pointing out this particularly terrible example.
Juan Guaido, for his part, does honestly come across as someone who cares about the future of his nation, but many people, including some who nominally support him over Maduro, claim that he is profoundly phony. After being briefly detained by the military, Guaido’s right to leave Venezuela was suspended, and most of his personal assets were seized, pending a questionable investigation that is more about threats and blackmail than, seemingly, anything else (although there are certainly some skeletons in the closet with any longtime politician in what is quite possibly the most corrupt nation on earth.)
Some people consider Guaido a heroic figure–“the most courageous and inspiring political figure that has emerged in Latin America in years,” according to one of his partisan press outlets. Guaido has even used Barrack Obama’s popular statement of hope, “Si, se puede!” (Yes we can!) This has rallied numerous opposition factions–many of them formerly at odds with themselves–into a temporarily unified movement, which has taken to the streets and is engaged in daily battles with the Maduro forces, who are still fighting an escalating civil war to reclaim what half the nation believes is their’s.
Humanitarian aid is being blocked, medicines are scarce, along with food. Electricity is out across most of the nation, and the chaos is spreading outside the borders of Venezuela. This is one of the most urgent crisis’s in the world, and not just because an important nation is in a state of utter collapse. No, the influence of such a violent partisan divide serves as a warning, as the same ill will spreads, of what our world is coming to. Venezuela serves as a ground zero for a coming worldwide war. And it is not World War III. That is the battle that will come after the hundreds of civil wars, and the military responses to such disaster provides a clear division of territories based on vague ideologies–like every war there has ever been.
The world is in a state of civil war. People hate one another not just for the traditional and silly reasons of race, or gender, or economic status. We hate one another for what we believe. This goes beyond the classic holy wars of the past. Political beliefs serve as the new religions, new bibles being written with every revolution, converting the oppressed and terrified next generation into new secular cults. Venezuela looks forward to a dire future unless something unexpected can be done. This is coming from someone with no religion, but we all need to pray for Venezuela . . .