Español“I have clear memories of every Christmas since 1937. I can assure you that I have never witnessed one as sad and full of sorrows as this one. People’s faces speak for themselves. There is no joy in them,” Enrique Aristeguieta, a Venezuelan historian, wrote this year.
Few days remain in 2017. It was a difficult year, perhaps the most difficult in recent history. Christmas has already passed. It used to be a time for celebration, which I have always looked forward to.
I start counting the days until Christmas in January. Children always do that. December 24 is the best day of the year for a child.
It’s been this way for as long as I can remember, regardless of social class. Everyone, together, waits for December to gather around the table as a family to make the hallacas (a Venezuelan dish). We uncovered our cream punch and bought ham bread and drank rum until three in the morning.
My uncle would come from San Cristobal, arriving in Valencia at noon on the 23rd of December with my cousins. We would only see each other once a year, but it felt like no time had gone by at all, as we would embrace and greet each other.
Grandchildren were the most important thing in the world for our grandparents. On the night of the 23rd, over 15 family members would gather in one room to exchange gifts. In some houses, people drank bottles of rum and other alcohol. In others, parents would crack open the Black Label bottles, and children would wear their best shirts.
And on the 24th, the music started playing early. The gaitas, llaneras, the merengue and salsa; in some houses, jazz and swing, with Louis Armstrong singing “Santa Baby.” It was like this every year: pure happiness. Cousins that hadn’t seen each other since they were toddlers would share a bottle of Santa Teresa rum while helping their grandmother boil hallacas. Meanwhile, others went out to buy ice. And at six o’clock in the afternoon the water heaters would still be running as people bathed and got ready to show off their new Christmas outfits.
At midnight it was time for the children to open gifts that Jesus or Santa had brought, a tradition that everyone celebrated. On the 25th of December all the children of Venezuela played with their new toys. It was, again, pure happiness — a time for family, where all the cousins, uncles, children and grandchildren gathered around their grandparents. Nothing could break that valuable stability of peace, music and alcohol.
But not anymore.
For several years, the nation’s economic stability has been crumbling. Inflation rates have accelerated in the last three years. A crushing crisis has hit the Venezuelan people and its effects can be seen clearly over Christmas time. This year has been much more dramatic than previous years. Depressing. Sad. It’s possibly the saddest Christmas in Venezuelan history.
Families, which are the essence of the holiday season, have been fractured by the country’s crisis. It would not be bold to say there is not a single family left in Venezuela that hasn’t been effected, whose parents are no longer with their children or whose uncles never see their nephews anymore, and whose grandchildren have left their grandparents.
In the homes of the elderly, loneliness prevails. They’re lucky to have the presence of a son or a nephew, or the company of neighbors who have also been left alone. There is no happiness anymore. Whatever joy there is comes from abroad: a brother in the United States or a son in Colombia with the grandchildren.
There are no warm greetings of Merry Christmas with hugs and kisses, the importance of physical affection! It’s a thing of the past. A grandfather has to ask for help so the neighbor’s son can help him turn on his tablet, open Skype, and only then, with tears in his eyes, wish a Merry Christmas to his children and grandchildren. His beloved grandchildren have left in search of the freedom that was taken from them by criminals in Venezuela.
This year, another element was added to the formula: hunger. Families who previously gathered together to eat pork and hallacas now go hungry. Children go hungry. Grandparents go hungry. Everyone is going hungry. It’s impossible to ignore this tragedy. Thousands have gone hungry this Christmas. There are thousands condemned to sadness and hunger and weeping.
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Children no longer ask Jesus for a toy truck. Now, they write a letter with the trembling pangs of hunger asking for food. Children are sick and tired of the misery. They are not to blame for what is happening in their homes. It hurts to know that their mother, whom they love so much, goes hungry. Children are begging Santa, Jesus and God to end this misery, to give them food, to allow their moms and dads and brothers and sisters to eat, even just for one day, on Christmas.
And it’s not just one family experiencing this tragedy. They are thousands — hundreds of thousands. A multitude of families that smiled a couple of years ago and counted down the days for the December festivities to arrive. They bought gifts, alcohol and food, a lot of food, because in December we used to eat a lot. Not anymore. There simply isn’t enough.
This year, the tragedy was greater. Almost the entire country is in crisis due to a lack of gasoline. Families who had planned trips to meet again had to postpone seeing one another. There is hope that the next one will be better. And the shortage of gasoline — along with everything else — seriously affected the mood and euphoria of holiday parties. Tourists no longer visit big cities that depend on the business, so they have fallen into in a depression. The streets of the villages, which are normally packed in December, were empty and dark. Caracas: dark. Valencia: dark. Merida: dark.
Restaurants in tourist areas don’t open due to a lack of gas and customers. Not even on the 23rd or 24th of December. Shops don’t even open anymore. The streets are a landscape of misery. This used to be a happy country whose Christmas was essential and immovable, but not anymore.
People wear their sadness on their faces. The Venezuelan people, even those who have been able to keep afloat, cannot avoid feeling the tragedy. They feel it at home with the shortage of food, and with the absence of family and friends. This is the new Venezuela.
There is nothing to celebrate. It’s all anyone can do just to stay alive. There are thousands of families who traded their usual Christmas dinner for a bag of garbage. No presents from mom and dad this time, because there were priorities, like medicine or food. Grandparents, who are already waiting for the inevitable, know that they won’t get the chance to say goodbye to their grandchildren. They cry in silence, but they cry. Nobody is smiling, and if they do, their anger and sadness soon follow.
Last year, Chavismo also managed to destroy Venezuelan families. Supporters of Nicolás Maduro’s regime have been trying for years, but now they has succeeded. Before, with the crisis of the hundred-bolivar bills, many preferred to stay at home. Now, an arduous gasoline crisis is hurting the country, adding to existing shortages of cash. The economic crisis has robbed the Venezuelan people of both happiness and peace. There is no happiness in Venezuela.