Unhappy Christmas: Venezuelans Face the Holiday Season

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Yesman Utrera

It doesn’t feel like Christmas in Antímano, the neighborhood where I live. Inflation, crime and violence, and the difficulty accessing basic goods and services have produced widespread suffering which popular sectors live with stoic resignation during a season that once brought joy and tranquility. The hills that used to be illuminated with multicolored lights in windows and doors today pail before the daily struggle of their inhabitants.

Most people look wistfully back on even the recent past when they at least had enough to buy a humble Christmas dinner. Vladimir Ferrer (38) recalls.

“Last year I complained that the ham bread [a traditional Venezuelan Christmas dish] was expensive. This year I cry because I know I will not be able to buy it–not even with my Christmas bonus, because today money runs like water through your fingers. Christmas is over in Venezuela.”

The Venezuelan government insists that the people live better today than they did years ago. However, the situation everywhere seems to emphatically contradict their statements.

From kilometer 11 of Junquito, Leidy Ospino—a 42-year-old housewife—says the following.

“People here used to have to get up early every day to buy something. But now there are things you can´t even get  waiting in line or that can only be obtained from street sellers at great cost. The flour that we need right now in December for the hallacas [another traditional holiday recipe], for example, never reaches the regulated markets any more. But in the street you can find it for six thousand bolivars—which is inaccessible with a meager salary. Other times you might get one in the CLAP bag, but that comes once a month and is one per family. So how do you make a good Christmas meal? “

Leidy’s friend Carmen Gutierrez (35) enthusiastically joined the conversation:

"And that’s just talking about corn flour. Because if you start talking about the meat to fill hallacas that is a whole other trauma. You go one day and ask the price and they tell you five thousand, you go the next day and they tell you seven thousand. What’s going on? They want to increase prices on everything because the dollar is rising. If we continue on like this I don’t know where we are going to end up. ”

“And the government?” I ask.

“Ah, well, whose fault do you think this is? Here in this country we have never seen this in our lives. You´re going hungry and they just sit there and talk. The people in government are the only ones who will have a Merry Christmas because they’re the only ones that are doing well here.”

“And what do you think of the opposition?”

“No, son. They´re on vacation.”

Outside Caracas, the reality is similar. In the town of Mamporal in Miranda State, Carlos Parra (38) comments with sadness. “Imagine, by now everyone was holding Christmas parties in previous years, but here today nobody can be heard talking about Christmas. You don’t even see the lights. And the saddest thing is that children do not talk about gifts. Morale here is at rock bottom.”

And it is not just the popular sectors who are suffering. Among the middle classes, there is a sense of nostalgia for a lost position of comfort. Standing in a supermarket line in El Paraiso, Juan Carlos Herrera (31), a sales advisor for a telephone company, recalls how Christmas was a time for family reunions in past years.

“Before we made a good meal at my parents’ house, we would all get together and make lots of hallacas, buy several ham loaves, chicken salad, panettone and even exchange gifts, a very good Christmas. This December we are even thinking about canceling our get-together because we are all going to work. Me, for example, I used to make a good income every month but today I’m here in this line waiting to see if I can buy a miserable package of flour.”

For others in the middle class a different nostalgia pervades the home during Christmas. Family members who went to study or to work in another country are missed by those who remain. Karla Alvarado (48) saw her second daughter move abroad this year and regrets that this Christmas will not be the same for her.

“I’m happy she’s gone because I know she’s better there. But this time of year is very hard for me because I am reminded of her everywhere. She always calls me and tells me she misses me, that she wants to take me with her, but I know it’s not easy. I prefer for her to stay there over having something happen to her here, even if it kills me not to have her here with me. And although it hurts her not to be in her own country, there’s nothing for her here anymore. This couldn’t be worse (‘Esto se lo llevó quien lo trajo’).”