Caruzo: In Socialist Venezuela, Coronavirus Christmas Is Just as Bad as All the Others

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Venezuela braces itself to celebrate yet another modest but bleak Christmas. Its citizens, uncertain of what’ll happen in 2021 with the ongoing political crisis, find themselves battered by a brutal year where the Chinese coronavirus pandemic exacerbated everything already going wrong: the hyperinflation, the blackouts, and the shortages of gasoline, cooking gas, and water.

The easing of the quarantine is giving businesses some much-needed breathing room and citizens a slight sense of normalcy after a year of steep lockdowns. The four weeks of lockdown flexibilization also allowed the Socialist Party to conduct political rallies for the sham legislative elections that took place on December 6.

The break did not come without threats. In one of his usual televised broadcasts, Maduro publicly berated citizens for not wearing masks, showing pictures of random citizens simply living their lives outside their houses without a mask on. Should this deed go unpunished, Maduro threatened the implementation of a two-week “radical” lockdown come January.

December is a special month in Venezuela. In times past, the sounds of Zulian gaitas filled everyone with festive joy. Our traditional Christmas dishes, such as the hallaca, the pernil (pork leg), and pan de jamon, are well worth waiting a year for. Venezuela is anywhere between 71 and 96 percent Catholic – the Maduro regime has not conducted a proper census in nearly a decade – so, before socialism, you could expect churches full of people united in prayer and children happily playing in our public spaces.

All of the maladies wrought by socialism have severely diminished our ability to practice our traditions. It has been a while since Venezuela has been able to celebrate a full-fledged Christmas, even without factoring in the ongoing Chinese coronavirus pandemic.

The extreme economic crisis of the country has forced citizens to forego many of the traditions that come with the season. With a minimum wage at barely over $1 per month that can barely cover the cost of a kilogram of rice, and a still ongoing hyperinflation spiral, it has become impossible for many to prepare our insignia Christmas dishes — for example, the traditional hallaca, which is a cornmeal patty with a guiso stuffing comprised of chicken, pork, beef, olives, raisins, and many more ingredients, wrapped in plantain leaves, and boiled. The hallaca is now a dish whose extensive ingredient list is impossible to afford for the majority of the country.

Preparing hallacas is elaborate and is best done with a few extra pairs of hands, so there is an intrinsic element of family bonding to making the dish. Every family adds their own twist to the staple hallaca recipe. There was a time when one was able to easily afford all the ingredients, and even prepare enough to share with all of one’s family, friends, and neighbors. That is no longer the case. The act of preparing it and sharing it with others is, sadly, a Venezuelan tradition that’s slowly fading away.

Of all the dishes that constitute the full-fledged Venezuelan Christmas meal, the pernil, or pork leg, is the one that has been the most weaponized by the Socialist Party of Venezuela to keep people in check. The ever-increasing costs of a cut of pork leg – the result of the hyperinflation that Maduro’s mismanagement of our economy has caused – is something they’ve availed themselves of to offer subsidized pieces distributed through the regime’s corrupt CLAP program. The CLAP, or Local Committees for Supply and Production, were introduced in 2016 to help Maduro secure a stranglehold on the nation’s diminishing food supply. Threats of not being able to receive the subsidized piece if you don’t participate in their elections are something very ingrained in our collective consciousness. As Diosdado Cabello, one of the Socialist Party’s chief strongmen, succinctly said, “those who do not vote don’t eat.”

What people receive leaves much to be desired. The pieces are often delivered without proper sanitary measures, and not everyone gets their own.

Another video published by Venezuelan Journalist Mari Montes shows yet another example of the unsanitary handling and distribution of the pork pieces, thrown on the floor and without proper refrigeration, with a poster of the “Supreme and Eternal Commander of the Revolution” ever so present.

In the end, many families – for the lack of a better option, as they have been thrown into sheer poverty by the socialist regime’s rule – have no choice but to receive the government’s subsidized piece, if only to have something to eat for Christmas, even if it constitutes a perversion of our traditions. The numerous complaints regarding the size and quality of the pork pieces incurred the wrath of Venezuela’s Agriculture Minister, Wilmar Castro Soteldo, who cataloged the people criticizing his Pork Plan as “bullshit talkers.”

If you live here and have access to foreign currency, or you’re able to receive help from abroad, then you’re among the few fortunate ones able to navigate your way to a real Christmas dinner. But just because you are able to afford and prepare Venezuela’s Christmas dishes doesn’t mean you’re all set to enjoy Christmas down here. You still have to be aware that a blackout may hit you at any time – moreso if you live outside the capital city of Caracas, where interruptions in power service are part and parcel of your life. You may also have to deal with the ongoing cooking gas shortages or the precarious and erratic running water distribution.

In my neighborhood, should water be abruptly cut once more during Christmas or New Years’ Eve, I am the one personally in charge of opening the valves of our building’s tank rations so that we can have some of it during those two special nights.

These last days of 2020 are a much-needed respite, as the shroud of political uncertainty looms once again on the horizon. Maduro’s brand new and loyal National Assembly will be sworn in on January 5, replacing the current opposition-dominated one, led by Interim President Juan Guaido. The new National Assembly will grant Maduro and his regime full control of all five branches of power in Venezuela.

Setting aside the material, the impossibility for many to partake in festivities, and the next stage of our ongoing crisis, what we have left is the essence of Christmas. In spite of still being subjugated by an authoritarian regime, facing collapsed public utilities; despite being economically squeezed, orphaned by an opposition that’s all but done for, and with two presidents that nobody wants or likes, we’re still able to at least be with our families and loved ones, able to assemble our Nativity scenes and pray, and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ once more.