I took this photo a week ago, as I was walking through the Catia barrio in central Caracas. The man sitting in the trash had put thin rolls of paper up his nose as not to smell the rotten food that he was eating, and those around him are so used to this image that they simply walk on by.
The photo was taken on an iPhone, and not only because it’s far too dangerous to be revealed as a journalist in a neighborhood like Catia, completely run by Colectivos, but also because I had been held at gunpoint and robbed by that very same paramilitary group just a few days prior. I had lost everything but my life and now, using a phone I had been given by a friendly twitter-follower, I was snapping pictures and trying to continue my reporting in a makeshift guerrilla-style way.
(Life in the Capitalist Paradise – Los Angeles homeless camps and street sleepers)
As some of you know, I was born and raised in Sweden and was blessed by having some long and loving summers in Texas that shaped me into this strange amalgam of a person; a Jewish woman with middle eastern eyebrows, a Swedish passport and an all-American heart. Perhaps it’s because nothing about me makes sense that I have spent most of my adult life making sense of things – searching for clues about the world and its inhabitant – or maybe I just have wanderlust caused by an upbringing in the Northern woodlands, far from all the places I know call my home.
Two things have influenced me more than all other. One is (as I described here on Ricochet in a previous post) my time in Texas as a young child and another my first visit to Poland in 1993, when I as a precocious 11-year-old was allowed to accompany my father on a work trip. My father didin’t exactly suffer from helicopter parenting so while he was in meetings I walked around Gdansk on my own, talking to strangers and taking pictures with my ancient instamax. I won’t spend this entire post detailing what I saw but I will say that the meeting between a recently liberated East, reaching for the West, moved me deeply. I never got to see the depths of despair under Communism but I got a whiff of it there, seeing a country seemingly rebuilding after an extended war, and even though I was far too young to understand what I had seen or to analyze what I experienced it stuck with me to the point where I can still conjure up those images – of empty shelves next to neon Levis signs – and revisit the visceral feeling of being a visitor from the future carrying a message from a faraway world.
(Los Angeles trash smells like trash in Venezuela)
When my father and I had dinner that night I told him about my day and he relayed his experiences from having worked in Eastern Europe in the 80’s, having friends and colleagues be arrested and spied upon and fighting for every inch of freedom under an iron Communist rule. To me, it sounded like the dark part of a fairy tale – when the witch puts a spell on the Kingdom and makes everything turn gray – but later in life I would learn about the realities of what he had told me, and (as Ricochet readers may know) take many turns on my road to fully understand it.
Sweden has long been known as a socialist paradise (a faulty rep as it’s actually a mixed economy/liberal welfare state with high taxes and a socialist veneer) and as such its political and intellectual elite have turned Chavez’ Venezuela to a cause celebre and an example of ideology done right. Sweden isn’t alone in this. Much of the Western world has, after Cuba became too distasteful for even the most hardened ideologists, hailed Venezuela as the last outpost, a plucky rebel state in a capitalist world. Despite ample proof of the Venezuelan people’s suffering, progressive Westerners insisted that the vision of Chavez was sound and upon his death, nearly 6 years ago to the day, there were plenty of tear-filled eulogies over a man who sent his own people into the deepest depths of despair.
So a few weeks ago, when I saw what I thought were signs of real change in this totalitarian state, I decided I had to go and see it for myself and report in whatever way I could from the last outpost of Socialism. I was supposed to stay in Venezuela for six days, and now I am coming up on five weeks, and everything I know has changed in the interim. I knew how bad it was here, but I didn’t know, I had a sense of human suffering but I had no idea what it actually looked like.
In the past five weeks I have seen children dying in the street from starvation and curable diseases, a society lacking even the most basic necessities and a people who has lost all hope. I have been targeted, hunted and harmed for being a journalist, hid under the pulpet as armed Chavistas broke down the door to the National Assembly and seen people line up for over 48 hours to be given a government-issued car battery. I have seen this failed state up close and with every passing day I have more questions and more reasons to stay, because and despite it all.
I have been blessed to be on the excellent Ricochet Podcast a few times since starting my reports from and on Venezuela and in the last one we discussed a possible American intervention, something that my Twitter DMs tell me stirred up a lot of emotions, and before I throw myself into more Venezuelan adventure I thought I would address the issue here, on the best feed I know.
(Not Venezuela – Third World LA California)
To understand why I am in favor of limited American intervention in Venezuela, one has to consider my background, which is why I bored you with this lengthy prelude. In my mind, America has always been a savior, despite being raised in a country that sat on its high horse an hissed about imperialism and “world policing”. America put things right, using its considerable toolbox to oust despots and set people free and not unlike the superheroes of my childhood, always shows up just in the nick of time.
I get that it’s a hard sell. Venezuela has, long before Chavez, favored strong-arm leadership and nurtured an almost messianic cult of personality in its political life and the same people who elected Chavez as a savior 21 years ago are now looking to be saved by the US and bailed out by a foreign entity. After Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan (to name a few recent examples) my argument for saving America from a Hezbollah stronghold on its border may not win many hearts and minds and, furthermore, a possible (probable) extended war between US troops and Cuban, Venezuelan, Lebanese, Iranian and Colombian paramilitary entities may result in a non-negliable cost of American life and treasure. I get it. To most, and ask like that would simply sounds like chutzpah.
And still, here I am, trying to figure the world out and asking myself and you if maybe, it could be done?
(Venezuelans dream of living in the luxury of the US Capitalist Paradise)
I may be naive, I will grant you all that; Thinking that a limited intervention can be the beginning of a profitable alliance in a highly strategic place, and that this could be a new version of PLAN Columbia that includes a few drones, a Petroleum pact and a long overdue slap in Iran’s face. I may also be emotional, or schmaltzy, as we say, in the face of all this suffering and the people coming up to me, begging for me to get the words and images out there so that the world will finally care about this despot’s slow murder of his own people.
I don’t know how or if this crisis will end or how long I will stay in Venezuela, but I know that every journalist at some point in their career has a feeling that there’s something they need to see through. A week ago I was face down on the ground with a gun to the back of my head, the weight of the Maduro government over me and the legacy of Chavez all around. Two days after that, i sat down with one of the senior leaders of the colectivos, the very paramilitary group that held and robbed me, sharing a plastic cup of coffee and discussing strategies for a possible civil war. This country makes no sense, and so I try to make sense of it. This crisis is underreported, and so I came. This is what I think journalism is and should be – going to the heart of the story and reporting what you see. It isn’t fancy and most often, it doesn’t make you famous. But these are things that matter, and the only way to find some sense.
Apart from my cameras and equipment, I packed very few things for this trip, but I did bring three items for my own enjoyment. Cigars (obviously), a copy of Krauthammer’s “Things that matter” and an old iPod filled with podcasts for those bumpy Caracas flights. I have now spent considerable hours listening to Rob, James and Peter, going back to the very beginning, and few things are as comforting as listening to them duke it out over elections long passed and stepping on segways like a Norwegian entering a Sauna (it’s funny if you know Norwegians). All three things are now in the hands of a colectivo gang in San Antonio Del Tachira and as upsetting as it was to lose everything I have worked so hard for I can’t help but giggle at the thought of a Maduro henchman lighting up a Cuban to the sound of Conservative banter while cracking the spine of Krauthammer’s book.
And to those of you in the comments who said that no matter how much I’m getting paid for this, it’s not worth it, I must disappoint – twice! Not only am I freelancing (and thereby being paid in pennies and booze) but given my recent run-in with the “law” I may end up paying to be here, in more ways than one. It’s not about the money (sorry, Rob, I know this hurts your soul!), I’m afraid. I need to understand this, and make sense of it all before I go and bring a little bit of truth out there among all the disinformation, to help a people I quite honestly have come to love.
We may disagree on a lot, the Venezuelans and I, but we share one common goal and central passion; the yearning for freedom and the fight against accepted truths. It may not be much, but to me, these are the things that matter.
your (lovable?) fool in Caracas
(Should Venezuela send troops to LA to relieve the human suffering?)