2 December 2009

Venezuela: a lawless country

Rafael grew up in West Caracas, in a low middle class family. Much like the majority of his friends, he never saw the education system as a way to better things in life. On the contrary, they all partook, in one manner or another, in petty crime, dealing and wheeling, and scams of all sorts, to earn some money, when not outright drug dealing, etc. It came a point where Rafael realised that his life was going nowhere, but straight to jail, or worse. So he decided to move away from Caracas. He managed to land a semi decent job in Margarita, as shop manager for an international company, and he started to earn an honest living. Life was good. He saved some money, and was able to buy the very things he had been dreaming with all his life: a 4x4, a motorcycle, an expensive mountain bike... The girlfriend of some time, Gabriela, seeing that Rafael was now a changed man, accepted to marry him, in contradiction to her mother's wishes and advice. They moved together to a very small apartment, owned by the fiancee's father.

But Rafael wanted more. He wanted to have his own place, and now, he thought could afford it. So he saved some more, and, with his father's help, managed to purchase a small plot of land in a beautiful hill, overlooking the sea. This, he believed, was to become his little piece of paradise. Every penny he could save, he would use to buy building bricks, cement, a W.C., then a washing machine, then some furniture, a TV, kitchen ware, etc. He started to fill his little apartment with the things he would put in his new house. Every night he would discuss the plans and lay out with Gabriela. Every day off, he would go to his plot, to level it, to measure it, to prepare and lay the foundations, to envision his dream house.

And so the construction began. Without having a clue about architecture or engineering, Rafael was leading a team, formed by Gabriela and two local helpers, in the construction of his own house. In the meantime, he lost his job. So his father and mother would often come to the rescue, both financially and practically, in the running of the project. This drawback put the breaks on the plan, but with a great deal of personal sacrifice, of pretty much every member of his family, Rafael finished his house. In this period, his wife gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Nina. Rafael felt that he was now whole, he had managed to escape a vicious circle in Caracas, and had now, after three years of hard work, a family, a house and a few bits and bobs, all product of his honest efforts.

But happiness was not meant to last for long. For once Rafael decided to move to his new house, with Gabriela and Nina, the very workers that had assisted him during the project, built a little brick factory in the plot adjacent to his. Needing water for the production of bricks, the workers connected, without permission, a hose to Rafael's water tank. Bothered by the abuse and the noise, Rafael complained to local authorities, who actually came to his place, and made the workers dismantle the factory (built in residential land), repair damages, and were made to sign a caution. This didn't go down well with them.

Two weeks ago, Rafael's dog was ill. Gabriela took it to the veterinary and was told that it had been poisoned. Unfortunately, it was too late when they got there, and the dog died. Last week, Rafael was coming back from work, a new one he had found in the construction industry thanks to the skills acquired in the last three years. When he was approaching his house, he saw three men in his house's doorstep, with machetes, beating Gabriela, who had Nina in her arms. He parked and jumped out of the car and went to them, only to realise that they were his old workers and another brother. There were two other men, keeping a look out, standing in the street: the father and uncle of the workers, a family gang. When the workers, alerted by their father, noticed his arrival, they turned on him, leaving bruised Gabriela and screaming Nina, and, wielding machetes, proceeded to chase him. So Rafael started running away from the house. Luckily, Gabriela reacted very quickly, she took Nina to the car, and drove away to pick Rafael up, who, after dodging machete-swings, had managed to outrun the chasing thugs. Eventually Rafael jumped in the car and they drove away. They went straight to the police, and returned to check things back home with two policemen. None of the neighbours wished to speak about what had happened. The police officers warned him: “you better leave this place. These thugs know when you come and go, next time, you may find your wife and daughter killed. We can't do anything more, for no witnesses are wiling to corroborate your story.”

Rafael and Gabriela are completely distraught. Nina, a very healthy and normal baby, has spent a few nights crying and shaking. They don't know what to do, their efforts of the last three years out of reach. Authorities are not willing to assist them, beyond paid-for visits every now and then. They don't want to stay in Margarita anymore, so not only their home will be lost, also Rafael's only source of income.

The women in his family are advising caution, and forgiveness. The men in his family, and his old time friends from Caracas, are advising him to take things into his own hands, for which they are willing to help, they are urging him to, as they say in Venezuela, “matar la culebra por la cabeza”, which means to finish the gang off, another family let's not forget. Rafael is very confused. On the one hand he wants to avenge the abuses on Gabriela and Nina. He said to his father “every scream of my child, every bruise and nightmare of my wife, every drop of sweat of mine, they will pay me...” The situation has forced him to abandon a project he recently signed, worth a few millions, that would put him back on his feet. However, the most powerful argument of Rafael were “the system in this damned country is the very reason why people turn to violence. For how can it be explained that thugs end up ruling, winning, against all reason, against the law, always? How come authorities declare themselves incapable so quickly and openly? How can I forget and forgive? How can I let this happen to me and my family? Why should we abandon our property, our life, our home, why should we throw to waste so much honest effort? Is this what life is about? Am I meant to let these thugs have their way, just like that? This country is damned. We are all damned, silently condemned to a life of violence, misery, and death.”

Rafael's old friends are ready, and eager, for a bit of gang war. A terrible tragedy could ensue, one that would engross the huge number of unsolved and uninvestigated violent deaths in Venezuela. All because of the lawlessness, all due to the utter uselessness of the judiciary and the police. A country without law, without institutions where aggravated parties can go seek redress, is a damned place indeed.

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