By June Carolyn Erlick
Long, long ago before I ever saw the skyscrapers of Caracas, long before I ever fished for cachama in Barinas with Pedro and Aída, long before I ever dreamed of ReVista, let alone an issue on Venezuela, I heard a song.
“Que triste vive mi gente en sus casas de cartón,” my Dominican friends played over and over again on their phonographs in our New York barrio. “How sadly live my people in their cardboard houses.”
I soon learned the song was by Venezuelan singer-composer Ali Primera, and the words stuck in my head as I traveled Central America, the Caribbean and Colombia as a budding journalist in the mid-70s. The song became a wrenching songtrack as I witnessed poverty and inequality throughout the region.
When I went to Caracas for the first time in 1979, I was startled. I was living at the time in Colombia, where new cars and televisions were a luxury—even among the middle-class, where children slept on the streets with dogs and rags to keep them warm. In Caracas, the new cars whizzed by me; imported goods of all types were sold in the stores and hawked in the streets; bookstores and cultural centers burst with energy derived from the Venezuelan oil boom.
Since then, I’ve visited Venezuela three times, the latest earlier this year in preparation for this issue of ReVista. Each time, I saw the skyscrapers, only later noticing the ring of cardboard houses on the hillsides, the houses Ali Primera so eloquently sang about. And each time, hearing about the immense wealth generated by oil, I hoped the inequality would disappear. “Hoy es lo mismo que ayer,” wrote Ali Primera. “Es un mundo sin mañana.” (“Today is the same as yesterday. It is a world without a tomorrow.”)
On this last trip, I saw Venezuela through an editor’s lens. What was the effect of Hugo Chávez’s government and what difference was it making in the lives of those who lived in those cardboard boxes? Was there indeed a world “with tomorrow”? I came away with more questions than answers. Despite the tremendous hospitality of my many and diverse hosts, despite the endless conversations—or perhaps because of them—I began to feel like the blind man touching the elephant in the famous parable in which each man touches a different part of the elephant’s body and comes to a different conclusion of just what an elephant looks like.
The language of hope, the language of despair, shortages and conspicuous consumption, empowerment and inequality, democracy and disenfranchisement, all mix together in a heady and dangerous brew of polarization.
I never could have done this issue by myself. Today’s Venezuela is extremely complicated and conflicted; to achieve a multi-voiced forum, I needed a team. Four wise and talented experts on Venezuela have guided me through this process from beginning to end: Fernando Coronil, Jeffrey Cedeño, Jonathan Eastwood and Vicente Lecuna.
Former DRCLAS Cisneros Visiting Scholar Fernando Coronil is Presidential Professor at CUNY’s Graduate Center and author of The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela; Jeffrey Cedeño is Professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures in the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas; Jonathan Eastwood, a former Lecturer for Harvard’s Committee on Social Studies, is Assistant Professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and author of The Rise of Nationalism in Venezuela; Vicente Lecuna is Chair of the Department of Literature at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.
In this issue, we’ve hear many voices interpreting what’s going on in Venezuela in anticipation of next month’s elections. We’ve covered a variety of themes, ranging from oil and revolution to international relations, and also remembering that Venezuela is more than just the Chávez effect; it’s orchids and architecture and music and art.
As I write these words at my comfortable desk in Cambridge, rereading Arachu Castro’s powerful piece on her experience in the missions, I pause to reflect that it’s really not about us and our words, after all. Again, the lyrics and melody of Ali Primera’s song float through my brain and I remember only a few months ago looking up on a dark Caracas night at the twinkling of the cardboard houses that are still on the hillsides. The question perhaps is, for the poor in Venezuela and for us all, is today the same as yesterday? And is there now a tomorrow?