“Ah, Venezuela, very bad” the old man lifted his cane, simulating a machine gun, “pa pa pa pa. Very bad!” My wife and I had been walking down a narrow alley between houses in the old town of Peniche, Portugal pushing our little boy in a stroller when the friendly old codger had approached us, his Portuguese slowed enough by the years to allow for a conversation. “Where are you from?” My wife had answered, “Venezuela”, thereby eliciting the faux machine gun parody.
“You must not go back there,” the old man said, wagging his finger as he returned his cane to its vertical position, “very bad.” He threw our son a wily grin, gave a quick nod – touching the brim of his worn-out fedora – and hobbled down the alley.
This abrupt exchange was more than a little disturbing. We had only just finished touring the old castle that had been a political prison during Portugal’s many decades of dictatorship – and the prosperous little port town still sat in the shadow of what must have been some difficult memories, especially for the towns elders. This fellow knew what he was talking about. So why would an old man in a small port town of northern Portugal have such a well-formed and vociferous opinion of the inner travails of Latin America’s latest dictatorship? And how could he see so clearly through the skin deep veneer of Venezuela’s communist propaganda, when so many others are so easily duped? Wasn’t Portugal a fascist dictatorship; enemies of the communists? Don’t they still have memorials to the communist party on every street corner, and isn’t the propaganda of the socialists still a daily part of Portuguese political life? Despite this, the elder – who had obviously lived through Portugal’s own dictatorship – knew well enough the signs of the coming tragedy enough to warn us “do not go back”. For this man there was no difference – authority, collectivism, and brutality need no special tags; it is by their actions that we know them.
Communism or fascism? A distinction without a difference.
Perhaps at the heart of the man’s unsolicited advice was that for the many years of Portugal’s own troubled times Venezuela had been for them a safe haven. Did he have a relative in Venezuela? Had he received some support from across the sea in times of hardship? Had he loved somebody there? Had he lost someone there? It’s possible; many thousands of Portuguese had found safety in Venezuela’s stable prosperity – and had become rich as shop owners, butchers and businesspeople willing to work hard to provide for their families. And now the Portuguese who only in the last generation had moved to Venezuela are rushing back, dusting off old birth certificates in the hopes of again finding a place where they can live in peace.
As I watched the old man shuffle down the street, going about some errand only he knew, I was grateful for his simple act of human decency. He had no power, no money, no position, no way to make things right. No way to stop what was happening an ocean away. No way to project his experience to the collective conscience of the world and thereby stem the tide of what is to come. But he could warn two strangers “do not go back there”. Would that we listened more intently to those who have traveled the paths before us; if we did how much tragedy would be averted?