In the early afternoon of Oct. 10, I walked to the middle of a street deep in Venezuela’s oil country, and despair hit me.
I’d just interviewed a woman who told me the town has no nurse because of a clerical error the government refuses to fix; no public transportation because the local bus broke down and no one could find the right replacement part; and no jobs despite the fact that her town sits on top of one of the world’s richest oil reserves.
At that point I’d been traveling through Venezuela for two weeks. The story was the same everywhere I went. Crime is inescapable. Institutions are failing. People struggle to find everything from corn flour to cement, and when they find what they need, they can’t afford it.
Some of the people I interviewed were optimistic. But standing in the blazing sun on that deteriorated, middle-of-nowhere street, I felt there was no hope, that the hole Venezuela had fallen into — or dug for itself — was too deep.
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As a reporter, I don’t take sides in the disputes I cover, including the argument over who’s to blame for Venezuela’s crisis. That doesn’t mean I don’t care. Witnessing hardship wears on me.
At a party in Caracas one night, some people asked me about my home. Yes, I told them, we have controversies in Boise, too. Just this year, I said, City Hall filled up with people staying up way past their bedtime to decry or support a proposal to close a two-block stretch of a street so that a hospital could expand.
They laughed and shook their heads. Imagine how silly that sounded to people who fear for their safety so acutely that they build walls around their houses and stick broken bottles on top so that thieves will be cut to ribbons if they try to climb over.
I lived in Venezuela in 2005 and 2006. I deeply enjoyed my time there, particularly the people, who are as warm and fun-loving as any you’ll meet. But that was when I really came to appreciate the privilege that comes from being American, from knowing you can make a living if you work hard enough. This year’s trip reinforced that. You don’t know how good it is here until you’re not here.
On the plane coming home, a young Venezuelan woman and I talked about next year’s presidential election in the United States. She told me American politics is a joke to her, because it doesn’t matter. Whether the next president is Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, food will still be plentiful, most people will still have jobs and security will be reasonable.
I get her point, but I disagree. Life is good in the U.S., especially in Boise. In large part, though, that’s because people care so much about Boise. They do things like attend hours-long public hearings to argue for or against bike lanes on Capitol Boulevard or a housing project next to their favorite outdoor theater. I hope we never lose that zeal.
My first story from my Venezuela trip will run in the Statesman on Sunday. It covers the food shortage there, how each side is blaming the other for it, and how it will — or won’t — figure into Sunday’s elections in Venezuela.
Over the next few weeks, there will be more installments. I hope they give you a sense of life in a beautiful, troubled country and, perhaps, a new perspective on your own.
Coming Sunday in Depth
Statesman reporter Sven Berg looks at Venezuela’s economic crisis and its effect on Sunday’s presidential election.