By Dr Dhanpaul Narine
Pedro de Aviles Persaud stands at the bank of the river and watches the boats go by. They are heading with their human cargo for Guyana. If the tides are kind the boat will reach Pomeroon in a day. Last week, the water was rough. The boat nearly capsized in the middle of the Atlantic and the personal belongings of the passengers were thrown into the ocean to make the vessel lighter. Today, there are twenty passengers strapped in orange life jackets. It is dawn in Venezuela and the captain wants an early start.
Pedro sees the boat slowly drift away from Barrancas and into the channel. There is no celebration, no fiesta or grand send off to the Promised Land. The fifteen Guyanese that are returning face an uncertain future in their homeland. Once they reach Pomeroon, it will be a new beginning and they are unprepared.
The five Venezuelans too face a future with many unknowns. They are heading to a country where the language and culture are different and they do not know whether they would be accepted.
Pedro sees the boat disappear in the distance and he turns in the bright sunshine and walks to his casa in the barrio. Life can be strange, he thinks. Things change quickly and when you least expect it. His friends and relatives are in that boat to Guyana. They wanted him to pack up and leave as well but where will he go and what would he do? His children were born in the town of El Tigre. They went to school there, spoke Spanish, and admired Simon Bolivar sitting on his horse. They were part of the Bolivarian revolution that consumed Hugo Chavez and the Miraflores Palace.
Pedro feels his coat pocket and is reassured that the book is there. The pages bring him reassurance and a constancy that take the worry away, if only temporarily. The book is about the man of La Mancha and the struggles that he faced fighting windmills. Pedro thinks that Venezuela has become a giant windmill; everyone wants a piece of it and people spin all kinds of stories to get control.
But there is another Orwellian windmill that animals built on a farm, only to have it razed when they were confronted by the guile of man. What is it about windmills that can’t seem to stand? Pedro sits in his hammock and takes out Cervantes. The houses around him are deserted. The neighbors have returned to Guyana and some of the locals are squatting in their houses in El Tigre.
A line in Don Quixote catches his eye and Pedro examines his own circumstance. It was 1977 when he first heard about the possibility of living in Venezuela. There were stories of Guyanese doing well in Venezuela and a young Anand Persaud joined the crowd. It was a dangerous trip on the high seas and after three days Anand landed in El Tigre.
He hoped to become a teacher but lacking skills in Spanish he joined others and did odd jobs. One day, he heard that if he changed his name he would stand a better chance to get a job. Anand became Pedro but he threw in ‘de Aviles’ just to be different. His friends had chosen names such as ‘Beria, Gomez, and Martinez,’ among others.
Pedro found the Venezuelan economy to be booming and he sent for his family from Boeraserie. He squatted on a piece of land and before long he had running water and electricity and his car ran with gas that cost only ten cents per gallon.
The schools were not great, as the teachers did not show up for work often, but the Spanish was enough for the children to get by. Pedro was unhappy with the creole English that the community spoke and vowed to teach the children but he never seemed to find the time. They built a Mandir and organized cricket matches with San Felix and Puerto Ordaz and Caracas that brought Guyanese together.
In 1980, a big change occurred in El Tigre. This was contraband. Boats plied the Atlantic taking goods to Guyana and several people became rich. Guyana currency was changed in America Street for US dollars while Venezuelan goods flooded Guyanese stores. It was life in cotton wool socks for many families in El Tigre but Pedro could sense that it would not last.
Hugo Chavez took the country closer to Cuba and spent billions on populist social programs that Venezuela could not afford. He fiddled with the constitution to prolong his stay in power.
The poor were kept quiet while the middle class was squeezed with taxes. But there was oil to cushion the economy. Chavez’s departure from the scene exposed several weaknesses in the social and economic structure in Venezuela.
Nicolas Maduro lacks the charisma of Chavez. A militant opposition demonstrates against his government. The tear-gassing and crackdown is shown on social media. He refuses aid but over three million persons have left Venezuela for other countries, including Guyana and Trinidad, and inflation is off the charts.
Pedro turns the worn pages in La Mancha. He is at the place where Don Quixote is put on trial. Manuel Singh who lives next door comes to visit Pedro. There is another blackout and Manuel doesn’t want to be alone. He is tired and upset.
‘I spent all day in El Tigre looking for food,’ he said. ‘The supermarkets are empty. They want 3 million bolivars for a loaf of bread on the black market. I was willing to pay it but someone came and bought all the bread. Tell me, how is it that a rich country can become so poor?’ Pedro cleaned his spectacles with an old newspaper.
‘There is no one reason,’ he said. ‘Venezuela sits on immense oil reserves but mismanagement, corruption, and rigged elections have crippled the country. Look around at El Tigre. What do you see? There are thousands of acres of lands that are idle. Venezuela has put all of its eggs in one basket. It has relied too much on oil. When the price dropped the country came to a halt. Add corruption to it, and the socialist nonsense, and you have a country that has collapsed. Maduro says that people leaving is fake news. You have seen those boats going to Guyana with Venezuelans. Is that a fake? The dictator is blaming everyone else while hyperinflation is at 10 million per cent and he has no plan. Even Don Quixote had a plan!’
‘But shouldn’t Venezuela solve its own problems and why is the US intervening?’ asked Manuel.
‘Yes, Venezuela should handle its affairs. What are the Russians and Chinese doing here? They want a piece of the resources and so does the US that relies heavily on Venezuelan oil. You can expect the US to be a player wherever the Russians and Chinese are involved. Each wants influence and control. When an animal is injured what do you see on the horizon?’
‘And Guyana with its border dispute becomes an oil rich country,’ remarks Manuel. Pedro is quiet. He is at the point where the gypsies steal Don Quixote’s horse and Sancho’s donkey. ‘It’s called geo-implosion,’ he says. ‘The US strangles Venezuela and makes Guyana a puppet state. Maduro goes eventually; China and Russia are in on the deal and the US gets more oil to stockpile. It pretends to take a hard line on the Saudis as it dangles the carrot at the corrupt Guyanese leaders. The US leads the choir on stage and they all sing The Impossible Dream.’
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.