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Venezuela: Before the Implosion

Last updated on: October 18, 2019 20:42 IST
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As Venezuelans continue to flee the starvation, crime and the horrific inflation that continues to mark the worst crisis it has ever faced, Radha Roy Biswas looks back at a devastated country she continues to love deeply.


IMAGE: Venezuelan migrants queue at the Ecuadorian-Peruvian border service centre, to process their documents and be able to continue their journey, on the outskirts of Tumbes, Peru, June 14, 2019. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

I am watching the news on TV in Jamshedpur.

On the domestic front, it is the aftermath of Article 370 that is capturing headlines.

In international news, the Brexit debacle plays on and on, while the Amazon burns.

But the news I am looking for, is from the other side of the world.

Venezuela typically registers low in Indian media consciousness, usually rolling by on the ticker at the bottom of the screen.

But a few months ago, this Latin American nation jumped into prime time, with each week bringing news of a seemingly endless downward spiral, a spectacular political and economic implosion, and a humanitarian crisis unimaginable a few decades earlier.

The reports have moved between coverage of riot police teargassing shirtless bandana masked Venezuelans at the border, with Colombia protesting President Nicolas Maduro's blockade of humanitarian aid; to the interim President-elect Juan Gaido, declared a US stooge by Maduro, pleading for countries to mount international pressure on Maduro to step down; to stories of 'Blood gold' and an imminent war with Colombia.


IMAGE: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro dances during an event with supporters of Somos Venezuela (We are Venezuela) movement in Caracas, February 7, 2018. Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters

For me, this is not enough. I turn to Facebook.

I find myself scrolling through the biting frustration and the outpouring of anger on the deadly violence that has gripped the country.

One image is of a meme of an inflated Maduro in a bulletproof vest.

The comments are vitriolic.

'It seems the food supplies did get through,' says one.

'Fat b***d feeding off starving children #m**f*m*,' says another.

I scroll down.

A photograph of trucks of aid supplies burning in border towns. A picture of Maduro dancing at a rally with a podium emblazoned with #Trumphandsoffvenezuela.

In between, are posters. Of emaciated children, prisoners in cells overcrowded to the point of asphyxiation, of endless food 'colas' -- food queues snaking through neighborhoods. Of week-long blackouts. Of defecting soldiers being escorted out of the country.

Only rarely, do I catch glimpses of the personal and the normal, people going about their lives.


IMAGE: Scenic Venezuela. Photograph: Kind courtesy Pixabay

But it was not always like this. Not the country I remember.

Venezuela. A country that occupies an outsized space in my mind, whose name I pronounce like the natives do, 'Benesuela', with a B not V, and an s instead of z. A country that exploded into my consciousness in 1978, when I was about 10, growing up a world away in my tiny corner of Jamshedpur.

I am quite sure that, until that day, when my dad came home and asked me to look it up in the atlas because that's where he would be going in a couple of months, I had no idea that Venezuela even existed.

I could barely pronounce it, and my excitement knew no bounds the next day in school, as I declared that my dad was off to 'Veninzula', my enthusiasm tempered somewhat by the blank expressions I received. At which, I added with a flourish, 'Continent of South America!', to a more satisfactory effect.

Radha Biswas's father, S K Roy

IMAGE: Radha Roy Biswas's father, S K Roy. Photograph: Kind courtesy Radha Biswas

That summer of 1978, my dad left for a year, taking a sabbatical from the Tata Iron and Steel Co, where he had worked for nearly 25 years, to serve as a technical advisor to the Siderurgica del Orinoco -- SIDOR -- a new steel company in the south eastern region of the country.

There, he would be part of an international contingent of engineering consultants from around the world, hired to drive the country's ambitious industrial development plans, funded with a tide of petrodollars.

It was unusual those days for mid-career engineers to venture out and my father had spent half his career here. So he left amid both speculation and fanfare, among colleagues and friends whose reactions ranged from, 'Venezuela! Where is that?' to 'Venezuela! How exciting! So far away, so mysterious!'

At the time, communication with Venezuela was poor. Our only communication was through letters that took a month to arrive, and the very occasional telex from an office in Calcutta.

For me, it was exciting and scary. For the first time, my father was going away for a long time.

My best memories of that year are the cards and letters I received from my dad.


IMAGE: Modern day Caracas. Photograph: Kind courtesy Anderele/Pixabay

The very first postcard, I can see it clearly still, with a picture of his hotel, and my first 'Hola!' But really, all his letters, his long, lovely letters, that over the next one year, came in prose, in rhyme, in code and riddle, with sketches and doodles, with an inexorably long month in between.

Letters with news and tidbits about the new mysterious country on the other side of the world; the thick mineral smell mingled with the scent of the sea that first greeted him in Caracas, the first glimpse of the small town of Puerto Ordaz in the area of Ciudad Guayana from the plane, with the sprawling steel plant standing out in sharp relief in the dry red earth of the region.

The drive into Mapanare, the colony adjacent to the steel plant 20 miles outside town, where he would be living and working along with a host of other Indian and foreign consultants.

My dad's letters described how Venezuela, a country approximately a third of the size of India but with far less than a tenth of its population, felt empty in more ways than one.

But the sun and the mangoes growing in every yard and street reminded him of home.

The letters had an impossibly long address: Sr. S K Roy, Asesor Tecnico, Siderurgica Del Orinoco (SIDOR), Matanzas, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guyana, Edo. Bolivar, Venezuela. And the priceless sign off at the end, 'South America'.

This continental mention was critical, we found. Without it, letters simply disappeared.

It is legend in our family, how my brother went to the post office to send our first letter back by registered airmail, only to be told brusquely by the postmaster not to waste his time, because he had never sent mail to this place, not one!

He was convinced that my brother was pranking him with an invented country! He even threatened to report him to the police station down the street.

Only after much pleading was a dusty old atlas taken out and shaken, and the existence of Venezuela grudgingly noted and acknowledged.

It was the postmaster who demanded, that henceforth, all our letters be directed to 'Venezuela, South America', a convention we never dared to forget!


IMAGE: The exotic caravan homes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Radha Roy Biswas

My dad's descriptions of his new living quarters, an amazing centrally air-conditioned 'caravan' home, in reality, a beautifully furnished doublewide trailer placed semi-permanently on stilts in the fledgling colony, with two bedrooms and baths, an open living-dining and kitchen, that captivated me and my friends.

The trailer was in Mapanare, a colony set up especially for the nearly 300 international consultants and their families, from India, Germany, the USA, the UK, Italy and Japan, who were all brought in to steer the expansion of the steel plant.

The colony housed a supermarket, a playschool, a baseball field, tennis courts, and a large 'Cancha', a giant pavilion for a community centre.

There were no photos initially, so we let our imaginations run riot over the length and breadth of these exotic living quarters.



IMAGE: A young Venezuelan participates in a carnival. Photograph: Kind courtesy Andres2016/Pixabay

Over the course of the year, through those letters, I learned that Venezuelans were a friendly, curious people, brown like us, but many had light eyes and light hair, the result of a mix of indigenous American, African and white Spanish settlers' blood.

I discovered that Venezuela was most likely named so, because in 1499, when a Spanish conquistador's expedition visited the Venezuelan coast, the stilt houses in the area of Lake Maracaibo reminded their Italian navigator, of the city of Venice. So they named the region Veneziola.

That about three hundred years later, Venezuela won its freedom from Spanish colonial rule in 1821 through the conquests of Simon Bolivar, revered as El Libertador -- The Liberator. And that Simon Bolivar held the unique distinction of being honoured as such in Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Bolivia, all territories which he liberated from Spanish rule.

I learned that the country of Bolivia was named after him.


IMAGE: A Venezuelan couple performs the Los Tambores dance. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

I discovered that, unlike India, Venezuela had no passenger trains, in their place, was a sparkling highway system on which large American cars from the '70s glided smoothly.

And the highlight -- this was a country where petrol was cheaper than drinking water!

I learned how almost everything was imported from the US or from other countries, from the money earned through petrol.

How Venezuela, despite being a tropical country, did not grow most its own food, but bought it.

'What a waste of big rivers like the Orinoco and a warm climate,' my dad wrote. Even mangoes!

Although they dripped from branches in every yard and street, the ones in the supermarkets were from Mexico.

But in one area, local was king. That was music, specifically, salsa and merengue, their lively numbers sung with a nasal twang, to the accompaniment of horns and drums.

My dad noted how this music made Venezuelans dance! And that they danced just about anytime, anywhere -- in stores, in parking lots, on the beach, on the street.

During office breaks , the locals would clear out the furniture, switch on a music player, and just dance!


IMAGE: Spotting an iguana. Photograph: Kind courtesy skeeze/Pixabay

The letters contained other exotica, my father's rough sketches and doodles of a toucan with its oversized beak, news of his first sighting of an iguana and startling macaws at a local park, and exquisite orchids.

One of his letters had strange squiggles all over. A tarantula had walked over it! It was a joke, of course, but how was I to know then?

My dad wrote of his attempts to learn Spanish, with all its rounded endings with Os, and gender specific nouns.

Of Senor and Senora, and how usually many English words could sound Spanish, if an 'O' was attached at the end.

Thus started a crack at Spanglish in my home, amid much merriment, with my brother going, 'My name-o is Sudeep-o -- how are you-o? Is that a cat-o or dog-o?'

We would dissolve into laughter, as we kept inventing our own Spanish, and I remember thinking that Bengalis like us, should be right at home in Venezuela with our 'roshogollas' and other Os.

That year passed quickly, with me holding on to my precious cache of letters.

Then I received a stunning surprise. I was going to Venezuela! And not just to visit; I would be living there for a year, attending an international school.

This was beyond my wildest dreams.

Even before I left, I imagined returning to my school, all worldly and sophisticated from my foreign travels. I got even giddier when a neighbour began calling me Senorita!

Almost before I knew it, the summer of 1979 arrived, and with it, my mother, my brother, and I, were winging our way to Caracas.

The flight from Calcutta (as Kolkata was then known) to Bombay (Mumbai) was my first ever, from where we boarded a Lufthansa flight to Caracas via Frankfurt.


IMAGE: Radha Roy in Venezuela. Photograph: Kind courtesy Radha Roy Biswas

Another family joined us in Bombay. The office had sent us an escort to accompany us all the way to Caracas, until we were delivered safely to the two dads, who were to fly in from Puerto Ordaz.

And so, about thirty six hours later, exhausted, but barely able to contain the excitement of seeing my dad again, I pressed my nose to the window as the plane rounded into Venezuela's Caribbean coast at night.

As we neared the dark shoreline laced with white froth, the hills of Caracas came into view, the lights of the city, on the hills and the valley below, twinkling like fairy lights.

I got my first look at Venezuela.

Radha Roy Biswas, born in Jamshedpur, spent some cherished growing years in Puerto Ordaz Venezuela. A public policy researcher by training, she returned to Jamshedpur with her husband and daughter after 15 years in the USA. She consults occasionally in her field and devotes some time writing and teaching. She continues to be a keen observer of developments in Venezuela.

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