Yesterday I came across a little video on Twitter produced by the U.S. Government’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance describing an aid package to Venezuela’s refugees living in camps in Brazil and Colombia. There are upwards of 700,000 now in Colombia alone, real refugees this time on top of the millions upon millions of “economic migrants” who clog up the sclerotic immigration systems of countries as far ranging as Australia, Canada, Estonia – to say nothing of Panama, Costa Rica and Peru. The help on offer was the standard package of “humanitarian assistance” provided by NGOs to save lives and alleviate basic needs: plastic sheeting, seeds and tools, food, non-food items (kitchen sets and hygiene kits), plumpy-nut nutritional supplements. Latrines and communal showers.
I have known this work – those who follow my wanderings know I’ve been involved with issues of conflict, refugees and ‘IDPs’ – in war – my whole career. Twenty long years, although long ago I stopped handing out the food; turns out it’s never about the plastic sheeting and communal showers are rarely the answer. How do we end the wars?? That has become my main concern. Or better yet, how do we keep them from starting in the first place?
The little video took me back to the very beginning, to a time when a crazy post-adolescent volunteer drove recklessly around the rebel-held Kivu provinces in Africa’s World War – the great war in the Congo. Ten African armies, tens of millions of IDPs. Five million people killed. I ran feeding centers – more than 60 of them, for staving babies. I distributed seeds and tools for farmers who finally had a small window of access to their lands. I gave away food – tens of thousands of tons from the UN World Food Program. I built schools, for the children of villagers who had fled the violence in the hinterlands to huddle sad and tired in Goma, the capital of the rebellion. Condoms so AIDS would not overtake a population that could not even afford those most basic and private protections.
It is a strange and sobering thing to see a video about these activities addressing a land I have known in wealth and opportunity. The beach, the mountains. Bird-watching in the beautiful parks, festivals like the ‘Devils of Yare’ and 11 hour traffic jams returning from a long weekend at the beach. Discos and dancing late into the night, curing a hangover in one of the many areperas with friends sophisticated and equal in every way that counts; super-malls and movies and life – a life more abundant, though they forgot that it was, or thought it could be more. Decisions that they deeply regret today.
We are now building a large body of knowledge about the collapse of civilizations, why they fail and why they fail to succeed: “Dead Aid”, “Why Nations Fail”, “The Idealist” and “The Great Escape”. We treat these things academically, but they are visceral when you see it firsthand. When you watch a country consume itself, not through droughts or natural disasters – those a unified, educated and free society can quickly recover from. No, nations fail for different reasons – stupidity and envy and greed worked out as policy tools to suppress dissent and empower a criminal elite. Corruption as cement to authority.
Twenty-five years ago Cuba went through what they like to call the Periodo Especial, the “Special Period”. How Orwellian is that – the special period? There is nothing special about starvation, deprivation, men building boats out of patched-over used tires and pieces of bamboo upon which they gently place their infants to attempt the perilous journey to Florida. There’s nothing special about the diseases – rickets and others only seen on pilgrim boats three-hundred years before, night-blindness (Vitamin A deficiency), humanity’s daily bread in times dark and long in the past. The Cubans of the special period had more in common with the denizens of plague-ravaged Europe than with their own children who had fled to Miami. To say nothing of the Marxist Utopia about which the despots pontificate from the top floor of the Hotel Nacional in Havana.
Venezuela is well advanced into what will probably be known as its own “special period”. The dictatorship, like that of Cuba a quarter-century ago, has plunged its country into a darkness unseen in her history, a well of misery so profound it is as vicious as it is unprecedented. Motorcyclists stealing bags of pasta from old ladies; mothers deciding which child will live and which will die – bonfires of human flesh beside a bread line. The stunting, infants wasting away in the full light of the Caribbean sun. Sacking of stores unlucky enough to be caught with bread or milk or a sausage. The looting of trucks that now have to traverse Venezuela’s perilous roadways with armed escorts – protection for the poultry. And the response of the government to their misrule? They have refused foreign aid. National pride is more important – pride in a revolution which long ago failed, leaving the people with real need this time as an accompaniment to the envy; manure with which the revolution fertilized its tumoric growth, for a time. Until the tumor killed the host.
But what to do? That, I fear, is the question – and one without an easy answer. As for me, I have no intention of returning to the days far in my past. To sit on the border, one of the plastic-sheeting people distributing hygiene kits to friends with whom I once celebrated the famed “Burning of Judas” New Year’s Eve festival at Hotel Los Frailes in the Venezuelan Andes. A ladle of corn-soy blend for schoolmates who challenged me to paddle ball on Venezuela’s storied beaches. A bag of maize-seed and a hoe to the doctor who once treated my bronchitis. No, it’s too sad to see how quickly and how far a civilization can fall. Some day Venezuela will again be free – free to be the place which my son will know, and love. Until that time, we will keep fighting and praying and dreaming. Because what else can we do?