Last May, annual inflation in Venezuela reached 24,600 percent. In one abstract, swift declaration, my mom’s monthly university professor salary became the equivalent of a dozen of eggs, or $2.70 US.
This past May as well, the OAS (Organization of American States) submitted a report to the International Criminal Court at The Hague detailing President Nicolás Maduro’s multiple crimes against humanity. The crimes date back to at least February 2014, when dozens of people protesting against the Maduro regime where killed by government forces trying to repress the manifestations. Last year, over a hundred people were also killed in the streets in renewed marches and confrontations with the government. The report submitted to the OAS refers to Maduro as “one of the intellectual authors of the repression.”
Several months before any talk of hyperinflation and crimes against humanity, the situation is already dire. I read an article from September 2016 that breaks me completely — children in Venezuela are dying by virtue of just being a young child with a scrapped knee and no antibiotics to treat it. The pain is so acute, I delay reading the article and only make my way through it in small increments. Then, in January 2018, the New York Times reports that Venezuelan children are dying of malnutrition at alarming rates. On social media, my mom shares a photo of three young boys eating from a garbage bag. I don’t bother to click on it, the reports are everywhere: people have been scavenging for food among the trash heaps in the streets of Caracas and many major cities since at least 2016.
Even though I decided to stop following the news about Venezuela back in 2007 when Hugo Chavez (Maduro’s predecessor) decided to close a prominent TV station–the frustration and agony was too much–the news in recent years have been so extraordinarily bad that it would be irresponsible not to read them: At a bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, an exodus on foot is taking place. Over 35,000 people every day have been leaving the country to try their fate in Colombia. Hunger and fear are what’s pushing them through the border. Those who can afford plane tickets fly to Chile, Panama, Spain, the United States, Canada. A brain drain of unprecedented scale. My dad shows me a photo of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia selling hats and purses made out of bolívares bills. They are just worthless pieces of paper, equal or lesser in value to the palm tree leaves my sister and I used to make sandals and skirts with when we were kids. The price of one bolívares purse is six times its worth in raw bolívares.
The criminal ineptitude – and the absurdity – of the Maduro regime, fully manifests at the gas station. The Washington Post reports that by the end of the year the inflation rate will reach 1 million percent, which means that the cost of the subsidized gas will be literally less than pennies and that people won’t have bills small enough to pay for it.
It is hard to fathom, but our imagination as Venezuelans has failed us again and again, regardless of the lessons from world history. No country ever thinks that they will become a nation of refugees. Our misery however, does have some uniquely perverse and maddening traits: There is no war ravaging Venezuela, no history of religious or tribal conflict, no natural disaster from which we are slowly recovering. No, this is a human-made disaster, first created by choice (millions of Venezuelans voted for Chavez and then for Maduro), and then sustained by force and repression. The injustices and ordeals family members still living there report to us everyday are overwhelming. Yet we go deeper into despair, Bosch’s picture of hell the only possible destination.
A few weeks ago I was doing the dishes and looking at the TV on the living room. My husband had stumbled onto Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had recently been made available on Netflix. The scene was a memorable one – Indy tries to steal a plane at a hangar and a fight with a huge Nazi mechanic ensues. Indy is losing the fight and scrambling on the ground under the moving plane when the mechanic turns around and realizes he’s about to be chopped into pieces by the plane’s propellers. Indy, unable to help him, turns his head in horror to avoid seeing his death.
Later, of course, comes the most famous scene of the movie. Belloq, a French archeologist who, like Indy, has also been trying to find the ark of the covenant – in his case to give it to the Nazis – finally opens it to reveal its contents. Understanding what is about to happen, Indy instructs Marion, his partner in this adventure, to close her eyes and do not look at the contents no matter what. At first what comes out of the ark is beautiful, ghostly spirits that envelop Belloq, Toth and the Nazi soldiers gathered in front of the ark. Soon however, God unleashes his rage, melting the Nazis’ faces and piercing the poor German soldiers with rays of avenging light. Once again Indy wins, not by force or by using his own hand, but by using his wit, knowledge and humility.
Though I no longer practice any religion, in my mind I start to fantasize about an avenging God unleashing his power against Maduro and his closest, most corrupt collaborators. And on the TV, as my husband watches each of the Indiana Jones movies, I see Spielberg, the son of orthodox Jewish parents, serve up a multitude of these fantasies one by one, often to villainous Nazis.
In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Indy fights the villain, Mola Ram, on top of a hanging rope bridge. Mola Ram is purely evil, keeping children as slaves and brainwashing Indy into following his cult at one point. Fighting for the Sivalinga Stones that have been the whole purpose of this adventure, Indy tells Mola Ram that he has betrayed Shiva repeating this chant until the stones start to burn and to fall one by one into the river below. One falls into Mola Ram’s hand who screams in pain but manages to hold it for a few seconds. Indy somehow makes Mola Ram let go of the stone and in the process Mola Ram loses hold of the bridge and falls to his death. Indy turns his head in horror again, as hungry crocodiles torn Mola Ram’s body and clothes into pieces.
Then, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, an undercover Nazi agent who has hired Indy to find the Holy Grail, turns into dust after he drinks from the cup he thinks is the real Grail. A few minutes later, the beautiful Elsa, also a secret Nazi sympathiser and Indy’s lover in the movie, falls to her death trying to reach an unreachable Grail – the real one – which has fallen inside the crack of the collapsing tomb. Her literal thirst for unmeasurable power is what kills her.
Several years later, in the fourth and final movie in the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a really bad guy, Colonel Dovchenko, gets eaten by giant killer ants after a long fight with Indy. This time, Indy doesn’t turn his head.
The mother of all avenging deaths however, is reserved for Col. Irina Spalko, played brilliantly by Cate Blanchet and the real villain of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. She dies being pierced by the truth of the universe being revealed to her in an underground cave. Her screams, which first state that “she wants to know” soon turn to “enough!” as she covers her eyes in vain to block the enormity of the knowledge she has conjured. Definitely a more intellectual but equally horrifying death. In all cases, Indy doesn’t directly inflict the villains’ demise, they bring it on to themselves for their lack of humility, their evil intentions, and their belief that they are, in some way, invincible. But God, the universe, a greater power, always gets to them and gives them what they desserve, their evil deeds too grave for a puny human punishment.
I stack each of the villains’ fantastical deaths in my mind, thinking which one would be most suitable for the Venezuelan regime: maybe the ark, followed by the killer ants, one after the other. Maybe the crocodiles, followed by the killer ants and then the realization, in all its magnitude and horror, of what they have done to the Venezuelan people piercing through their eyes and ears and faces.
Because at this point, having had ample opportunity to admit that his state is a failed one, that his government is full of criminals, that Venezuelans are dying everyday of crime, repression, suicide, childbirth, minor infections and hunger, Maduro and his collaborators have gone beyond deserving a human punishment. Nothing that we could do would be enough to pay for this government’s deadly ineptitude and complete disregard for the rule of law; their despicable cowardice yet total lack of shame in their tactics; their nauseating cynicism, extraordinary ignorance, and inexhaustible thirst for power. I guess in times of despair we turn to fantasies and since we have failed to see any justice in real life when it comes to governments like Maduro’s, the movies and the cartoonish deaths of villains offer some sense of justice and hope; they too will pay one day, even if is not in this life or this earth.
Yet, we all know that revenge fantasies don’t work in real life. The pain is real and the blood is real. Remember Muammar Gaddafi, the deposed Libyan dictator? He reportedly met a horrible, savage death in the hands of rebel fighters who beat him and dragged him in the dirt after they killed him. I never watched that footage, though it circulated widely. There is no closure in knowing this, it helps nobody that this was his death, regardless of the crimes he committed when he was alive.
And then there is the news footage of Sadam Hussein undergoing a medical examination after he was caught. I remember seeing the medical examiner pressing a tongue depressor inside his mouth and search his beard and hair for lice. I felt so ashamed, I could not watch. His evil was unquestionable, but I still saw a man being humiliated for our benefit. I often think about this and what I would feel if I saw Maduro and his closest allies face to face. Like millions of Venezuelans have done in the last several years, I would take to the streets. Would I be able to contain my anger and my pain? Would I be able to remain composed enough to tell them to their faces that nobody believes their lies? That the young students protesting and dying in the streets have only known a country that gives them nothing, yet it still takes everything away from them, even their lives? I really don’t know.
I think the real fantasy is not a revenge fantasy. It’s that Maduro and this whole nightmare didn’t exist at all, that Venezuela was yet again a prosperous young nation full of hope and freedom, fully embracing and enjoying the wonders and progress of our century. Sadly, we have to face the reality that this is not to be, not yet, not maybe for the next 30 or 40 years. So we watch Indy fight the bad guys and win, and in our dreams, when we fight the bad guys, we always win too.
Featured image: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, oil on oak panels, 220 cm × 389 cm (87 in × 153 in), Museo del Prado, Madrid.