On July 30, Venezuela’s anti-government movement quickly collapsed after a controversial, and possibly fraudulent, vote radically extended Nicolás Maduro’s presidential powers. On the ground in Caracas during those fateful days was Canadian journalist Christian Borys, whose Longreads Exclsuive about the unraveling of Venezuela’s Resistencia movement, “You Can See the Battle Scars,” came out last week. I recently chatted with Christian over email about the protests’ sobering aftermath, and the experience of reporting from a country caught in a dramatic downward spiral.
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It’s been almost two months since you returned from Caracas. Have you been in touch with some of the people you met there? What are they telling you about the current state of things?
Yes, I’m in touch with someone almost every day. The weirdest part about what’s happening now is that nothing is happening. The movement against the government died the day after the big vote on July 30. It was as if everyone either gave up the fight, resigned themselves to a future under a dictatorship, and returned back to their work-life routine or got out of the country. A lot of people told me that their friends just left afterward. That was the final straw.
You’ve reported about protests and civil strife before, in places like Poland and Ukraine. How was the experience in Venezuela different for you as a journalist, and as an observer?
Venezuela is in a far more difficult situation than any other place I’ve been to. It’s devolved into one of the worst places in the world to live, and although they’ve managed to avoid any sort of massive internal armed conflict, people are struggling just to get basics. You have people picking through trash to find food, which you can certainly find in any country, but everyone we spoke to said that they’d never, ever seen that in Venezuela before. The food shortage and poverty had grown so extreme that people were forced to pick from scraps. We heard stories about women turning to prostitution to make a dollar, about how insanely difficult it is to acquire medicine if you can’t afford it, and even about the trouble of acquiring something as basic as a T-shirt if you want a new one. The prices have just gone to such extremes in relation to the wages that nothing is remotely affordable anymore.
People with access to U.S. currency can live like kings in Venezuela because the currency has fallen off a cliff, but not everyone has relatives in the U.S. who can send them dollars. It’s this slow descent into the abyss. I think it was Diego — a young man featured in the story — who said to me, while we were at a market, something like, “Man, this is such bullshit, nothing is affordable anymore.” And I asked him about when he began to notice the changes. He said it was slow, so slow that you just got used to it each time it happened. Each time there was a spike, you thought it can’t get worse, but then it did. For reference, when I got there, the currency was below 8,000 bolívars per one U.S. dollar. When I left, it’d dropped to 20,000 to one dollar amid the chaos. Now it’s gone all the way to 30,000. People’s real earnings have just gone up in flames.
One of the most striking things in your piece is the way it conveys the normalcy of danger. How did it feel on the ground while you were reporting? Was there a sense of imminent violence, whether from the authorities or from random crime? Has it affected the way you went about reporting this story?
The dangerous part about Venezuela — and why it was so different than Ukraine, for example — is that when you cover war, you generally know which direction the threat could be coming from, you know who could be out to cause you harm. In Venezuela you had no idea, and the options were limitless as to who might put you in danger. There was SEBIN (The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service), robbery, kidnapping, National Guardsmen, Venezuelan officers, and random murder. It was an especially difficult place to work during that time because there were checkpoints, even casual ones, all around. Authorities were looking for suspicious groupings of people in cars to figure out which ones could be protesters. There was a lot of paranoia on our part about who was watching us — and it was definitely justified. One day, on July 30 actually, the day of the Constituyente vote, a middle-aged man came up and snapped my picture, then rushed away. My colleagues and I were concerned we’d be picked up.
Your reporting took you to very different areas in Caracas — from affluent enclaves to some of the poorest barrios. Does the despair, and the reactions to it, transcend these divisions, or did you see it play out differently across socioeconomic fault lines?
Yes, we went all over the city. I wanted to make sure we saw the whole spectrum of opinions, and frankly, everyone young, without exception, was against the government. It didn’t matter if they were ultra-poor, like Gaucho, or wealthy, like Federica — who are both are featured in the story — the young people were universally against their government. It makes sense when you look at the statistics and realize that they no longer see any future for themselves in their own country. I think people sometimes discount or can’t empathize with how difficult it is to have to pack up and move to a different country, even if you speak the same language. I mean, moving apartments can be enough of a pain in the ass, but fleeing a country, finding a new place to live, building a new social and professional network, restarting school, finding a new job, starting a career from scratch, learning a new culture, establishing new routines. Those are all emotionally exhausting.
Bringing this back to a North American perspective, the concept of political “resistance” has seen a major resurgence this past year. And it’s almost always framed in optimistic terms. Your story shows the moment where a resistance movement very clearly hit a major, perhaps fatal, dead end. Is there anything that can be learned from the Resistencia activists you’ve witnessed in Caracas in the days before the July 30 vote? What’s in store for this now much-weakened movement?
I honestly have no idea what can be learned. I was shocked to see the movement die off the day after the vote. I expected some massive uprising to take place, as did many people, except for the veteran correspondents who’d spent years in Venezuela. Several people told me to expect nothing much, but it seemed like such an intense moment that I discounted that theory a bit. But that’s exactly what happened.
Some people tried to explain it to me afterward as the failure of the opposition politicians to actually keep the trust of the movement. Their message changed so often, from “Let’s march on the Presidential Palace!” to “Pull over and turn your cars off in protest.” People were disheartened by their leadership, especially when they saw their leaders willing to cooperate with the regime in the wake of the vote. I mean, people on the street were screaming “dictatorship!”, and yet the politicians who’d asked them to give their lives for this movement suddenly changed views and began to negotiate. I guess the people felt betrayed. The only way you can ensure that doesn’t happen is if you make the resistance movement apolitical, meaning you don’t let a political party co-opt it and lead the charge. You’d have to let civil society lead it, and do it for the betterment of society, not for the political goals of any party. How you can ensure that a politician doesn’t step in and take over is beyond me.
As far as what’s in store for this movement, I honestly have no idea. I feel like the country is just going to lose a ton of its young, talented people and devolve further into a shadow of what it once was economically and culturally. I don’t know if there will be a big challenge to Maduro’s regime anytime soon.
Read “You Can See the Battle Scars”