Venezuela is the kind of place that’s back-lit, it glows, dim from the inside out.
I was sitting on a bench in the small Caribbean country, far from my home, under a street lamplight. A dozen people milling about, young twenties, late teens, sitting, drinking, fatchando borros, talking, smoking, making noise, language full of phrases and modismos and slang-filled sentences, barely comprehensible to me, until—
“Y por que? Chavista?” A boy said to another, his tone inflecting disappointment.
“Pano, que no entiendes? El salvará este pais del infierno.”
The slurring sounds of thick, juicy, rolling Venezuelan Spanish distilled, clarified, crystalized. The cadence slacked. I could suddenly understand conversation. He would save the country from hell. He, Hugo Chavez, the socialist politician self-proclaimed revolutionary who won an election in 1998, four years prior to my arrival. He rallied against Western imperialism, riding on a thinly-veiled fast-track to dictatorship by taking control of all branches of the government. He perpetuated himself in his position of power. He cut deals with similarly aligned countries, trading oil with Cuba for Cuban medical doctors. He rallied against the private sector and made many companies and industries nationally-controlled organizations. He spent hours in self-centered media broadcasts. I hadn’t known about him until I arrived in the country, but as soon as I was there, his supporters and antagonists were unavoidable. Chavista or not? That was the enchanted question I heard asked frequently.
The Chavista spoke in a leather voice, slowing the Venezuelan uptempo to baby-talk speed: but he is a commander. We will follow his lead to greatness!
“No, pano, no,” his opponent said. No, friend, no. How can do that when he wants to cut us off from the rest of the world?
Then I heard a sound in the distance—Car tires screeching.
A soft thud.
Blasted through the airs of thick conversation.
Things got darker for a moment.
And then a girl from the group let out a banshee scream.
“My perro! Mi perro!” she said, running away from our small group, through the darkness between lamplights to where a car’s red lights were on.
Someone said, “I think her dog just got hit”—the voice was a shot, blank.
The conversation started to speed up again. I lost the thread. The Chavista and the others started talking loudly, arguing, heated, and a few people broke out and followed the girl who ran toward the stopped car across the median, to the other side of the street. The glow that I perceived turned into a flash that outlined, illuminated, brightened the dark shapes momentarily, then dissipated, again, reduced to soft light. Glow.
My Venezuelan friend, the one who brought me to the night time hang, turned to me and said, “Hey, I’m hungry. Let’s go get something to eat,” in English.
I got up off the bench, saying, “Sure,” lost in my inability to speak my objection, to ask that we go and help the girl, her dog, to ellicit more about this Chavez figure. I spent the minutes walking to the car, getting in, sitting down trying to formulate questions by my Spanish came thick like molasses, and not really at all, sentences and questions stuck somewhere in my brain. On the short ride to the arepera, I only managed to ask: “Why didn’t we help her?”
My friend said, “I didn’t know the girl. Or her dog.”
The car slid along the road, cloaked in mostly darkness, sometimes light from the streetlights. The houses, all set behind tall brick and concrete gates and fences, had lights at their doors, but their lights didn’t reach beyond the walls, didn’t reach to the road or car.
The next afternoon, I was at a modest house inside a gated community, sitting, while a group of five people played dominoes. I chose a corner with a view of the street. My mind was tired. I was post-drunk on the experience, overhung, enraptured by the way the people around me were so different from things I knew, could measure. At that moment, I couldn’t muster Spanish, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone and I was too tired, whether in English or Spanish, to actually play, so I sat out the game, sat away from the game.
I took a Belmont out of the small softpack, lit my cigarette, and thought about what I saw the ride there: the highway was uncharacteristcally empty (said my Venezuelan friend who drove), and as the small car zoomed fast across near-empty lanes, past pick-up trucks, full of Venezuelans in the backs, banging pots and pans, shouting loudly, passing faster. A twenty-minute drive, full of these images. I saw a tank, too, on the side of the road. A giant green beast-like machine, and Venezuelan men in army fatigues standing next to it.
They told me, “It’s safer inside today,” when we had arrived. “Caceroles en la carretera,” someone else said, referring people I saw in the pick-ups, the people who were beating the pots and pans.
I couldn’t understand why, when I had woken up, I was told that the satellites were down, that only the state-sanctioned channel was running on the television. I couldn’t understand how the group at the house could go on playing dominoes, how anything could go on at all. I couldn’t understand why I felt no fear, only sympathy for the dog who had been hit the night before, and I couldn’t understand why I found comfort in smoking my cigarette, at a distance, from people whose lives were controlled by a Devil, some willingly. Maybe the lack of understanding was the effect of the back-light spell.