In 1999, when I was 14 years old, I visited Cuba for two weeks with my mother. In my country, Venezuela, Hugo Chavez had just been elected president for the first time—and we did not know what our future held.
During our visit, we made friends with some Cubans and got a glimpse of how hard their lives were. For example, I learned that they were afraid to go out on the town with us because of government restrictions (unlike us, Cubans were forbidden to enter hotels freely).
I also learned that Cubans had to have a special card in order to buy food, clothes and other goods, that the amount they could buy was rationed according to the number of people in their households, and that they were not allowed to choose the size of the clothes they bought.
While, as a tourist, I could buy any flavour of ice cream I wanted at the famous Coppelia gelato shop, Cubans were only offered one flavour.
During our two-week visit, we talked to many Cubans, including trained engineers who couldn’t get jobs in their field and were driving cabs to survive; people who worked all day and yet could only afford patched clothes and a little bath soap; and others who were too afraid to speak freely.
These people were being treated like second-class citizens in their own country. We could not imagine what it might be like to see our own freedoms suppressed in this way.
Today, in Venezuela, things are no better than in Cuba. This is not surprising, since Chavez and, later, Maduro, consciously copied the Cuban political model.
Venezuela has been through many political transitions since 1999. For a while, the sale of Venezuelan oil brought in a lot of revenue, which propped up our economy and gave us an impression of abundance. But, within a few years, Venezuelan citizens began experiencing the destructive effects of falling oil prices, new economic restrictions, waste, mismanagement, the nationalisation of a large number of companies and severe scarcities.
As the economy collapsed, the Venezuelan government made various attempts to keep at least part of the population satisfied. It increased the bonuses distributed to its political supporters, opened new supermarkets (although they soon closed) and started food distribution programs, such as Mercal, which were rendered ineffective by corruption.
A few years ago, the regime began to sell cheaper food through a system called the Local Committee for Supply and Production (Comité Local de Abastecimiento y Producción, or CLAP).
Under this system, people who are affiliated with the government decide what food to send to the populace, how much to charge them for it, and when to deliver it. The bags of food arrive two or three months after they have been requested, and contain only enough food for a week or two. CLAP has been criticised for the poor quality of its products and the corruption that has allegedly pervaded it. In addition, many people feel humiliated by having to buy food from CLAP.
When CLAP was launched in 2016, my mother signed up—with great reluctance—because food shortages had become so extreme that it was the only way to obtain certain basic products, like sugar.
These days, I order bags from CLAP so that I can give the food in them to friends or to people who knock on my door asking for help, or so that I can use it to barter with—for example, I use food to pay the man who prunes a bush in front of my house. (Since paper money has become scarce, using food as barter has become a common practice.)
I have tasted some of the food that comes in the CLAP bags. I’ve made vegan hamburgers with the lentils, and those weren’t too bad. But the salted milk does not mix well in drinks and the flour tastes strange.
Several times the government has threatened to cut off my CLAP supply unless I get a so-called homeland card (carnet de la patria). So far, I have refused, because the government uses them as a means of control. All Venezuelans already have a government ID card, but the Maduro regime has added the homeland card as a means to track people—it is linked to a digital platform known as the homeland system (or sistema patria). For now, they are still allowing me to place orders, but that may not last. I don’t need the food bags myself, but I would like to be able to continue distributing their contents to people who do.
At first, only those who supported the regime signed up for a homeland card, but gradually more people were forced to join the homeland system. And now, all public employees are required to have one in order to collect their bonuses. A friend of mine who works in a public school earns less than two dollars a month not including bonuses, and five or ten dollars a month including bonuses. If not for the fact that her daughter, who lives abroad, sends her money, she would not be able to eat.
My friend resents the fact that to receive most of her pay she must participate in the homeland system: it does not contribute to her retirement fund; she receives payment on random dates, and sometimes not at all. The bonuses are considered a mere gift from the government, and nobody knows how long they will last.
There are other benefits that cannot be accessed without enrolling in the homeland system. For example, my aunt was told that, unless she had a homeland card, she would not be able to receive her retirement pension. (The pension program had been in effect since 1944 and had not previously had any such requirement.) She obtained a card in order to enrol in it, even though she receives less than the equivalent of $2 US per month (as of 15 August 2021, the exchange rate is 4,109,629 bolivars to the dollar) because she wants to ensure that she will be eligible for benefits in the future, when the current government is no longer in power, and the amounts paid out may increase.
My mother, however, would rather lose her pension than join the homeland system. Like many others, she does not want to allow the regime to gather data on her, data that might be used against her.
When Covid-19 vaccines started to arrive in Venezuela, Maduro announced that vaccination appointments could only be made through the homeland system. This meant that people who had not obtained a homeland card (or who have neither a telephone nor a computer) would be unable to get vaccinated. This system effectively discriminated against citizens based on their political affiliation.
After this policy received some criticism, the government offered people another way to sign up to be vaccinated—via the Health Ministry’s website. But even though everyone now has access to the vaccine in theory, in practice they do not. Complaints have been circulating on social media that people waiting in line to be vaccinated are being told that, if they are not in the homeland system, they are not eligible. And some vaccination centres have posted handwritten signs announcing the same thing. It is quite telling that the government did not formally offer everyone access to vaccines from the beginning, and that it still selectively withholds vaccinations in practice—yet another reminder that, in Venezuela, everything is based on one’s political affiliation.
Reality is constantly changing in Venezuela. It is impossible to predict what the future holds, but rumours point to greater control through the homeland system. However, government measures are often quickly forgotten, therefore, despite the restrictions and discriminations, the population always trusts that any decisions that are taken will not be in force for long.
Meanwhile, food supply in supermarkets has improved due to the informal dollarization, but the root problems have not been solved. A temporary air bubble has simply been created, to help us breathe. We continue to experience serious problems such as gasoline shortages, public services failures and insecurity. Venezuela does not seem close to a real recovery, but no one has lost hope. Sometimes we fight the regime through street protests. And sometimes we just have to try to adapt, so that we can survive for a little longer.