Waking up to Everyday’s Nightmare

Amnesty International reports that in Venezuela between 2015 and June 2017 more than 8 200 people were executed without trial. In his text the Venezuelan writer and editor Héctor Torres describes the Kafkaesque lives that people lead in Venezuela, where they may be randomly evicted from their homes and without trial might find themselves behind bars. “That roulette, which turns incessantly stopping every so often to aim at anyone,” says Torres. 

January 22 2019 Text: Héctor Torres Translation from Spanish: Tanya Almada

In a passage from the book The Man in Search of Meaning, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl tells how one night, sleeping in a barrack in one of the concentration camps in which he was imprisoned, he saw a fellow breathing and moving restlessly in the middle of his sleep in what was obviously a terrible nightmare. About to give in into the pious purpose of ridding him of it, he stopped when he thought that he was safe from the nightmare of life in that hell, from which he was resting for at least a few hours.

The anecdote, surprising and terrible, can be understood when living under certain conditions. As in the Venezuela of the “21st century socialism”. Under the cloak of a very thin layer of apparent normality, people wake up every day to a long nightmare that has been growing in intensity and voracity into every corner of everyday life. And every day, pretending to be in control of their lives, they go out to face another episode of orchestrated madness that tests their capacity for resistance. And their sanity. Especially for those old enough to remember that Venezuela came to possess one of the most solid currencies of the continent, as well as a thriving economy that attracted people from different corners of the world who were fleeing poverty, totalitarian governments or wars. That oil-producing country which just thirty years ago had thriving economy, today looks so distant and unreal that someone could ask, with genuine perplexity, if it isn’t a loose cable sputtering in their minds memories things that did not happen, a mirage of memory.

And although everyday life in 21st century Venezuela is hard (lack of food and medicine, hyperinflation, constant blackouts, water rationing, collapsed public transport, long lines to buy basic supplies such as domestic gas, to name a few daily calamities), the one who dawns in his bed every morning and sleeps in it every night can feel a fortune that other compatriots would like for themselves.

El Helicoide is a building whose construction began under the government of the penultimate dictator of Venezuela, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, overthrown in 1958. It was supposed to be a multi-story shopping center, which could be toured in its entirety without having to get off the car. Ostentatious delusions of a megalomaniac, as befits every dictator, in face of a country full of riches in a subcontinent full of scarcity.

Very much associated to its main promoter, upon the fall of the dictator, the building was condemned to oblivion. It became an uncomfortable ruin without glory or past, an unburied corpse. Towards the last periods of the democracy governments, there were attempts to give it varied uses, temporary and erratic, like a shameful accident of which nobody wanted to take care.

Until 1998 arrived. 

With that year, Hugo Chávez, a lieutenant colonel who took power by the votes after he had tried, years ago, to stage a coup to a constitutional president, also arrived. And, like the unburied Helicoide, with him returned the phantom of unsettled issues, like that of a people that began to feel locked out of the promised modernity, and who, instead of aspiring to justice, was content with revenge from the hand of the populist who, while giving a sector of the population a spectacle that distracted them, systematically dismantled the entire institutional operation of a country that, despite its flaws, had enjoyed a 40-year democracy.

And Chavism knew how to put El Helicoide to use according to the work of a dictator, turning it into the headquarters of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin), a political police force created by Chávez, a kind of tropical and chaotic Gestapo, which has accumulated a long record of Human Rights violations.

Political prisoners tend to be taken to El Helicoide. But so are common criminals, and people kidnapped in obscure criminal operations performed by its operators, who seem to have an autonomy that is not held accountable by any hierarchical structure. At least not a formal and visible one. Not few prisoners who have been issued a release letter by a court remain there by order of whoever makes the decisions in there.

But this is not the only detention center for the Sebin. In Plaza Venezuela, a central area of ​​Caracas, there is an armored solid building of invulnerable appearance, protected with high walls and strong bars behind which you can see men dressed in black carrying long weapons, talking indifferently, as if in the entrails of that building some of the stories that, eventually, will take a whole command structure to the International Criminal Court were not being staged.

The Tomb operates in its basements. There, five floors below the ground, Lorenth Saleh, a 30-year-old young man deported from Colombia by the then president of that country, Juan Manuel Santos, without any trial or legal procedure, was held prisoner. He spent part of the four years he was in the hands of his captors there, tortured and isolated, until his exile to Madrid, without them being able to prove any of the dozens of charges that he was accused of. The body of Councilman Fernando Albán “fell” from the 10th floor three days after being kidnapped at the Maiquetía airport,where he had arrived from New York as part of the commission of opposition politicians who denounced the regime of Nicolás Maduro before the United Nations. Him being a fervent Catholic, nobody bought the story of his suicide. People enter there one day (one night, to be more precise) after being taken from their house, despite having parliamentary immunity, without any judge order and, when crossing the bars, their lives enter a limbo without known jurisdiction. In short, there lies the faceless power of the country.

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested,” says Franz Kafka in his famous novel The Process. As the character of Kafka, Luis Rafael Colmenares was arrested one day in February 2015, when he was returning home in Maracay, capital of the state of Aragua, without having done anything truly wrong. As the character of Kafka, he was a bank employee (a bank teller, specifically). But unlike him, who never knew what he was being accused of, Colmenares was accused of being part of a plot to assassinate Nicolás Maduro, piloting a Tucano plane to perpetrate the attack. He was imprisoned until this year, when he was released. Some soldiers who were involved in that case, who they called “the Blue blow”, did not meet the same fate. Released on the same date, they returned for them a few days later. They are still imprisoned, as dozens of officers of the different sections of Venezuela’s army.

Another Kafkaesque case? The one of Pedro Jaimes Criollo, a climatology and aeronautics enthusiast, topics which he wrote about on his twitter account, and who published on May 3 of this year an image of the Venezuelan aeronautical space, which included the route of the presidential plane. Seven days later, while returning home with his nephew, he was intercepted by a Sebin commission that took him by force to interrogate him. He is still detained without his family knowing what he is accused of or where, exactly, is his place of confinement.

And so, for the most diverse reasons, 234 political prisoners are counted to date, according to a list drawn up by the NGO Penal Forum. And not necessarily for exercising politics, worth emphasizing.

It began with the motto “Patria, socialismo o muerte” (“Homeland, socialism or death”.) And in the meantime, as long as we don’t accept “socialism”, we receive death. But that roulette, which turns incessantly stopping every so often to aim at anyone, is not only handled by the sinister hand of the Sebin. A newly created body, the Special Ops Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales—FAES), the extermination group of the Bolivarian National Police, has been very proactive in making itself some space in that feast of death. This group carried out the massacre of Oscar Pérez and others, an official of an elite corps of the scientific police who revolted and carried out a couple of propaganda blows with no casualties to regret; he was cornered with his group of followers in a house in the outskirts of Caracas and executed with a barrage of shots of all caliber, including anti-tank weapons, although they had shown willingness to surrender. This event happened almost live, since Perez was live-broadcasting on Twitter while the massacre, which included a pregnant woman, took place.

During the 2014 protests, there were dozens of students killed, imprisoned and tortured. In those of 2017, carried out against the imposition of the Constituent, the repression resulted in more than one hundred assassinated, ten of them, at least, on the same day of the election of the illegitimate instrument.

And there is the DGCIM (Directorate of Military Counterintelligence), and the GAES, attached to the Bolivarian National Guard. And the irregular police groups, used to subdue the population during the protests. The so-called OLP (People's Liberation Operations), massive seizures of poor neighborhoods by mixed commissions of these groups, which leave dozens of crimes in their wake. Amnesty International denounced that, from 2015 to June 2017, more than 8,200 extrajudicial executions took place in Venezuela.

The marks of the toughest blows take time to show. They are inside. They are difficult to observe for those who see each other every day. They are solitary tremors of the earth that crack foundations and split walls, slowly but unstoppable. You can see it in the look. In a fatigued demeanor, in a certain absent-minded attitude, like those who have lost something consubstantial during their journey through earth.

Many Venezuelans try to pretend that they are not living in a nightmare. Or try not to think much about it. At least, they sleep in their beds. Without knowing how, they cling to hope. They tell themselves that this will pass, while they insist on remembering every day that “normality” is a statistical term, and that the day will come to reconsider the aspects that make it up to live a truly normal life.

Meanwhile, they wake up every day to the nightmare, trying to build, while immersed in it, the dream of a common life, where there are no shocks and they even have the chance to get bored.

Héctor Torres (Caracas, 1968). Narrator and editor. Author of the story books El amor en tres platos (2007) and El regalo de Pandora (2011), of the novel La huella del bison (2008) and of the chronicles books Caracas bites (2012), Undeclared objects (2014) and The Fierce Life (2016). He is a co-editor of the website www.lavidadenos.com