Caracas: Rotten Town
From my journal, written while living in Caracas:
September 20th, 2008
Some days I think there is something truly sinister about Caracas. Maybe just when it’s cloudy. Maybe I have an overactive imagination.
Today I left my apartment. I walked down 12 flights of steps to the ground level, and up 4 flights in a different stairwell and emerged on a kind of roof garden wedged between the four towers of Parque Central. It is one of my favorite places in this city- because it’s big and open, the wind rushes through it, and there are some plants and places to sit and almost no people. It is my secret garden.
And oh, the wind – it’s this crazy wind that moves through Parque Central that always feels so charged – it’s warm and mildly aggressive. Not playful or severe, but probing. Not in a good way or a bad way – just …so full of energy. The wind carries the smell of chaos.
I settled in to read my book.
Usually I feel free in this place I’ve found, energized by the wind and gratified by the solitude. But sitting there today, I looked around me. In the cardinal directions I was encircled by cement towers lurching upwards, so that the sun and much of the sky was obscured. Straight above me the clouds were lumped, doughy and heavy looking.
I suddenly felt claustrophobic and my heart began to race.
Then I heard an explosive boom, and then there were a thousand pigeons swooping and crying overhead covering all that was left of the sky. then another explosion and more birds added to the mayhem. My heart started pounding faster and it seemed to me like the four towers were closing in on me. I heard the hungry whirrrrr of the monster generators that surrounded me that I’d somehow not noticed before. I looked around and saw hundreds of sand bags and broken cement and a few straggly plants. I saw how ugly it really was. A cement cage. And realized how just having space and solitude and openness in just the one direction, towards the sky, had made it beautiful to me.
and then I jumped again – a sudden flash of yellow… there was a person moving quickly towards me in my peripheral vision. I frantically turned.
But it was just a girl with a high pony-tail and a bright yellow tube top storming away from a man who was close on her heels begging some kind of forgiveness.
I took a deep breath, embarrassed. It was nothing, nothing had happened, nothing was going to happen. It was a normal day, like any other day. There was some normal explanation for the loud noises. The city was not yet falling to pieces.
But I’ve recently noticed that I watch people’s hands and their eyes and the speed of their movements more carefully than I once did. I startle at the sound of fireworks.
I used to walk dark streets in New York at 4 AM without feeling a shred of fear…maybe I ought to have, but I didn’t.
now loud noises, people moving towards me too quickly…or too slowly, someone following me, the appearance of a cop or a man in fatigues, someone heading down the stairwell behind me, a car that slows as it passes me, someone reaching in their pocket while staring straight ahead – all these little normal happenings now make me live through a thousand possible violent future histories in split seconds. I mean, a blast in the night: you just never know, fireworks or gunshots? it could be either. or both. man moving quickly towards you: carrying a knife or just in a hurry? Or both?
I had a complicated relationship with Caracas, my home of over 3 years – Love, Hate, Attraction, Repulsion. But lately I have found myself really missing it. I can’t say what I miss exactly – just the feeling I guess, the energy, the craziness, ‘el sabor.’
What I DON’T miss is living with a low-lying, quiet, constant sense of fear. I did not realize how embedded this subtle fear had become in me until I first arrived in France. It literally took me years to be able to walk down a street, any street, without feeling some level of latent anxiety; I found myself always watching the people around me, and listening to the cadence of their footsteps. If they veered ever so slightly towards me my heart would leap; if they put their hands in their pockets, my eyes would follow. Not even little old ladies or children were exempt from my paranoia. And it did no good to logic myself out of the habit, it was part of me. I KNEW there was no danger, but my body didn’t believe me. It had become used to the presence, the possibility, even the likelihood of jeopardy, and had adapted to it. It no longer knew how to respond to a safe environment.
I have meant to write about violence in Venezuela for a long time, but now that I am coming to it, I find I am not equipped. I think in part it’s hard for me to write about this subject because I feel in some ways, since I’ve been out of Venezuela for a few years that I don’t totally have the right to talk about it from a place of reliable knowledge. Since I am not in the thick of it I can’t really know how bad it is, and I don’t want to be another one of those people that is picking on Venezuela from afar without really knowing what they are talking about.
But I think that maybe from within it’s just as hard to have perspective. From within it was so easy to say, “Oh it’s not all THAT bad.” After all, that’s what I always used to tell people when I lived there. I mean if you are there, living your daily life, you get used to the way things are. And you accept them as relatively normal so that it’s hard to really grasp how NOT ok things are, how ABnormal having to adapt to the constant presence of THAT level of crime and violence is.
At some point about a year and a half ago, I saw an affecting, disturbing music video that captured the dark side of Caracas – a simple and blunt song called Rotten Town by Venezuelan reggae artist OneChot (Juan David Chacón).
I was so impressed by the courage, and gritty rawness of this video that shows the blood that flows through every day life in Caracas that one all too readily, even blithely ignores or accepts while living in the middle of it. I loved that it wasn’t political, so much as social commentary, placing the blame on everyone’s shoulders, implying the corruption in so many elements of Venezuelan culture.
There was a lot of talk about an investigation being opened up on OneChot for “showing sensationalist images of violence,” but it never came to anything. OneChot said he did not make the video to be political, but to wake people up.
Tragically, two nights ago OneChot, was shot in the head by a group of delinquents who were apparently intending to steal his car. He is currently in stable but critical condition. It is not yet known how much brain damage he has suffered, and if he will recover.
At the hospital, waiting outside the intensive care unit, his mother has remarked, “Venezuela is in a very serious situation and my pain is not limited to what happened to my son. I am pained by what happens to the thousands of Venezuelans who die every year anonymously. ” She said that she hopes that what happened to her son serves to draw attention to many other victims that do not appear in the news.
I have to turn to numbers, because it’s easier to trust them, it’s easier to know that I am not being biased or over-reactive or unfair (although even with the numbers it’s hard to know the ‘truth’ as numbers can vary from one source to another).
Let’s look at violence in Latin America. You’ve probably got some impression that Colombia is dangerous right, what with the FARC and all those drug cartels you’ve surely heard about? In Colombia in 2011, there were 32 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. And Mexico? We hear a lot of bad things about Mexico too right? Mexico suffered 14 murders, per 100,000.
What about Venezuela? According to the Venezuela Violence Observatory (which bases its figures on research from several Venezuelan universities) a total of 19,336 people were killed in Venezuela in 2011, or an average of 53 a day. Therefore Venezuela had a murder rate of 67 per 100,000 inhabitants, twice that of Colombia, more than four times that of Mexico, and nearly ten times the global average of 6.9 per 100,000.
And what would you think, how would you feel, if I were to say that Caracas, the capital of Venezuela is the most violent city in the world? I guess you might be a bit surprised. What about Baghdad? Or you’ve heard, I’m sure about that hell-hole Ciudad Juarez on the border between Mexico and the US, coined, “The Murder Capital of the World.” We read gory stories all the time about heads rolling, grisly deaths, shocking numbers. Well in 2011, 1900 people were murdered in Ciudad Juarez, or 146 per 100,000, a truly horrible statistic.
But Caracas was still worse; according to the Venezuela Violence Observatory, for every 100,000 people living in Caracas, 200 were killed in 2011. In other words one out of every 500 people was murdered last year in Venezuela’s capital city. Compare this to say Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, which averaged 23 for every 100,000, and you can see how absolutely out of hand the situation in Caracas must be.
If we could know the number of Venezuelans who either died or have a friend or family member who was killed last year, I believe the numbers would be staggering. Violent death is touching so many people. And if we were to take this even further, to who has been either killed, robbed, attacked or kidnapped or knows someone who was killed, robbed, attacked or kidnapped, I think the numbers would be near 100%. The violence, and the fear of violence, of crime, of violation are ever-present. It touches everyone – it does not matter who you are, how rich or poor, or where you live. It is an ever-present shadow looming over the beautiful peaks of the Avila mountains, coloring everyone’s lives.
And what is striking about Venezuelan statistics are that they have gotten steadily worse over a long period of time – this is not a new phenomenon, and is not a problem that is likely to disappear on its own or any time in the near future. I think that it’s important to consider that whatever you think about Chavez, it is entirely possible that this casual thoughtless violence will be part of the character of the country far longer than he himself is.
What does it mean to you that one out of every 500 Caraqueños were killed violently last year? I’m sure it sounds shocking and horrible, because that’s exactly what it is. But it’s probably a little bit hard to imagine that level of violence, hard to wrap your mind around numbers like that – and how living in a place like that would be.
I think it’s also difficult to write about this subject without turning the country into a statistic, and projecting imagined concepts of violence over the canvas of the country. How can one effectively express what life is really like within that context?
For example, I don’t know about you – but as much as I know a place like Baghdad is a real city, a real place where people work and live and can have somewhat normal lives, when I read articles about it, I can’t help but automatically picture a place that looks more like a bunker than a city, more like trenches than streets – because that’s how I imagine war in the Middle East. Those are the stock images my brain has to pull from, of sand and rubble and dusty vehicles full of men holding machine guns. I am wrong of course, but I don’t know any better because I have never been in a city at war, and the images I HAVE seen have come through a television box, edited for dramatic salability, fronted by reporters, and framed strategically.
So perhaps if you’ve never been to Venezuela, upon hearing that Caracas is one of the most violent cities in the world, you might envision it as a projection of your own ideas of violence and however you imagine South America.
But I lived in Venezuela for a long time, and my memories and the images in my head are drawn directly from experience. Although the crime rate has increased over the last three years, during the time I lived there it was already quite high. I could tell you stories about my experiences – hearing gunshots, seeing pools of blood outside my apartment building, being mugged, seeing people wielding knives, that sort of thing, or I could retell stories that have been told to me by my boyfriend, by my friends, by acquaintances – after all there are ever so many horrible stories to tell. But I think whatever details I could provide wouldn’t actually give you a fair and realistic sense of life in that city, because the stories would be lacking the proper context.
I’ve had so many people ask me how it was possible to live in a place that was so dangerous – but you know it’s not as hard as you might imagine. Because a dangerous place is never just a dangerous place, the crime becomes part of the fabric of something more complex. Venezuela was sad and violent, but hilarious and fun and beautiful at the same time. Life was random and chaotic, spontaneous and humorous and always interesting. The scariness was only one flavor among many, more of a backdrop than a major theme.
I lived there. I had an apartment, and a roommate. I had two cats. I went grocery shopping. I had a job. I had friends. I went on dates. I went to bars. I drank Solera Verde and tried to dance salsa. I ate arepas and cachapas. I learned Spanish. I fell in love. I lived my daily life.
And that’s how you live in a violent place. I mean you know the rules – where not to go, what not to do, but then you just keep on living despite the danger, and you get used to it.
It is more likely than not if you live in Caracas that you will see or experience some sort of crime at SOME point there. But when you live in a violent place, you do not see violence all the time or even frequently, you aren’t in the morgue counting the dozens who have ended up there that day. So it’s easy to say to yourself, when you’re in the middle of it, that it’s not that bad.
In some ways maybe it’s just as hard, or harder for me to conceptualize Venezuela’s homicide statistics, and place them in the context of a place I am so familiar with. Routine sometimes takes away our capacity to see things around us clearly. Strangely, sometimes the closer we get to things, the harder it is to see them. You adapt. It doesn’t seem so hard to live with it, because there you are doing just that. You don’t even realize that the violence, or the fear is sinking into everything that you have and are, like smoke, clinging to you, settling into your hair, your skin, your lungs, becoming part of you. It doesn’t seem as extreme as it is until you leave it, until you step outside into a more normal place and see what a warped world you were living in.
It’s amazing how adaptable humans are. We usually can find a way to normalize just about anything. This can be a great boon in certain situations, but it can also let us get accustomed to uncomfortable, horrible or immoral things rather than insisting they change. Sometimes it takes dissident voices or artists like OneChot to point out the obvious, to wake us up and remind us that the situation is not normal and not ok, not acceptable. How many more bodies will have to pile up in Venezuela before people wake up and DEMAND something be done about it?
~ by zoetropic on March 2, 2012.
Posted in Here and There, In Search of Lost Time, Personal Essays
Tags: Anxiety, artist, Caracas, change, Chavez, Cities, City, commentary, Crime, Culture, Death, Fear, homicide, Latin America, murder, Music, OneChot, Opinion, People, Personal, Photo, Photography, Photos, Politics, Random, reggae, Social, South America, Statistics, thoughts, Travel, Venezuela, violence, Writing