“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders — What would you tell him?”
“I … don’t know. What … could he do? What would you tell him?”
–Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
In Venezuela, a snow-white polar bear is everywhere. In the supermarkets of the wealthy (back when they actually had food to stock) and in the red-painted kiosks of the hillside barrios, there is nothing more ubiquitous than Polar.
If Venezuela is known to us foreigners for its beautiful pageant-winning women and its limitless reserves of oil — Venezuela is defined by its own people through the food produced for them by this, the greatest of all food conglomerates. The harina pan which makes the arepas — thick maize-flour patties filled with cheese or ham (back when there was cheese and ham). The mayonnaise and beans; and beer. Always the beer. Venezuela’s Polar beer is as important to the country as the beaches.
Polar is the country’s most important business and the family name of its owners — the Mendozas — is as famous as the Chávezs have become (for different reasons, thankfully). For 100 years, the Mendozas — now represented by Lorenzo, a long-haired, quiet man who has always eschewed politics — have produced the food that has fed a nation. Considering only the well-being of his clients, Lorenzo has continued to make flour while Venezuela’s government has gone from democratic, to “third way” (thanks Tony Blair), to “socialist” authoritarian, to finally totalitarian under Hugo Chávez’s numskull protégé Nicolas (Nick) Maduro and his Cuban minders.
But alas, in totalitarian Venezuela no good deed goes unpunished. As “Nick’s” political fortunes have waned, he has thrown his lazy, insipid gaze across a country ravaged by his predecessor’s brand of narco-socialism and “expropriate it!” policies and alighted upon Lorenzo Mendoza — the last bright star in the fading constellation of Venezuelan industry.
Last week the Venezuelan government aired an illegally intercepted telephone conversation between Lorenzo and a Harvard professor, during which they chatted about what it would take to save Venezuela’s economy. “Nick” then went on television and told the country that those types of private conversations were in point of fact treason and that Lorenzo should go to jail.
With all due respect to Lorenzo Mendoza, a good man who is carrying on the family trade of feeding a country, his work is no longer helping. For every bag of harina he produces that goes into the belly of a hungry Chavista; for every can of beer he brews which enlivens the revolutionary debates of the idiots; for every bag of beans that is distributed by the populist government as “proof” that they love their people, he is prolonging the inevitable. He should stop.
Lorenzo Mendoza should shrug.
He should stop letting the work that he loves enslave him to people who curse him for it. He should stop fighting to keep the factories going while the commies devise ever more creative ways to destroy him — and by extension themselves. He should stop producing the food that gives the dogs the energy to bite the hand that feeds them — in the most literal sense possible.
The work of the great producers is a virtue, the ability to create, by which they provide value to a society and are rewarded by a grateful population through wealth. However, when their virtue is called treason and their value is called a duty, they are being disingenuous when they claim that they should continue to do good — that they can somehow “outlast” the evil.
If “Nick” believes that Lorenzo’s skill at making good food should enslave him to the millions of hungry revolutionaries; but that imagining a way to continue to produce said food — despite the mess that the government has made — is punishable by prison; well then Lorenzo is under no obligation whatsoever to continue his work.
So now is the time to be honest with ourselves and each other. Every calorie Lorenzo harnesses into good, nourishing food is being used to perpetuate a great evil. He should stop.
The original title of Ayn Rand’s greatest novel Atlas Shrugged was The Strike. It is time for Lorenzo Mendoza to go on strike.
Joel D. Hirst is a novelist, author of The Lieutenant of San Porfirio and its Spanish version El Teniente de San Porfirio: Cronica de una Revolucion Bolivariana. Follow @JoelHirst.