My Dad always says that Venezuela requires a lot of explaining to gringos.
When he was a student, he taught English in Caracas. Though he had already taught his class how to sing Beatles songs with convincing Liverpudlian accents, he himself struggled with the distinctive Spanish, especially the local sayings.
One day, while getting a haircut, the barber asked him “quieres un cepillo de dientes” (would you like a toothbrush?) He reckoned it was a bit odd the barber was offering one, but was skint and accepted it without skipping a beat.
“Bueno”, said the barber – and turned him away from the mirror.
It was only when the toothbrush never came and Dad felt the Caribbean breeze more than normal did he realise that a “toothbrush” meant a buzzcut on the sides, with a flat top that would make Grace Jones ecstatic.
After that episode, he devoted more time to learning Venezuelan sayings. Many still spring to mind when we talk about how much the country has fallen into ruin, and their wisdom may contain the clue to the country’s eventual revival.
“Es bueno el cilantro pero no tanto” – Cilantro is good, but not too much.
A little caring for your fellow citizen goes a long way, but change that chic Scandinavian welfare apparatus to a centrally planned socialist economy and you’ve got yourself a future humanitarian crisis. Venezuela is a petrostate with the world’s largest oil reserves, yet years of economic malfeasance and corruption under Chávez led to Venezuela’s complete dependence on high oil prices, which tumbled in 2014 and led to immediate economic decline. Both the Chavez and Maduro administrations responded by printing money, which brings us to our next saying.
“Dando más vuelta que mamón en boca de vieja” – Spinning more than a Spanish lime in an old lady’s mouth.
This is an odd one, describing an activity that is so hard it’s almost pointless. This is because in order to eat a Spanish lime, one must suck it for quite a while, especially octogenarians. Printing money to avoid the harsh realities of Marxist central planning is much like drawing juice from a Spanish lime: the economy shrinks and dries like chapped lips.
Venezuela’s economy has contracted by nearly 60 per cent since 2013 and is experiencing hyperinflation at a rate of 10 million per cent. The combination of hyperinflation and the collapse of food infrastructure make the cost of daily food out of reach for 90 per cent of Venezuelans. These food shortages and the lack of access to basic services affect nearly every Venezuelan and are contributing to a dramatic increase in disease, malnutrition, and poverty.
The resulting humanitarian crisis will lead to the projected displacement of almost six million people by the end of 2019, eclipsing the European migrant crisis.
“Se quedó como la guayabera” – He was like a Guayabera shirt.
Guayabera shirts are the bowling shirts of the Caribbean, worn untucked by old men on every street corner – and so to be like a Guaybera is to be left out. Left out is a generous term for the Maduro administration. Large- scale protests in 2014 led to the first opposition government elected in more than 20 years and the regime has officially been unrecognised by the governments of over 20 nation-states. Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guiadó is the recognised leader, yet has since been unable to topple the dictatorship that continues to strangle the country of resources and recognition.
Yet like those who wear Guayberas, Maduro is stubborn; left out but not alone. He retains control of the majority of the armed forces, and generals have been known to tweet their allegiance for their president throughout the day.
“Mucho chicle pero poca bomba” – Lots of bubble gum but little popping.
This is a way of saying, “all talk, no action”, and defines Venezuelan policy under the Trump administration. Many of the Venezuelans who form the opposition expect the US military to intervene, yet the Giadó opposition and US-led coalition against Maduro has instead relied on a resurgent military to turn against the dictator. This was the case during the failed uprising of April 2019, where the military brass remained loyal, with fewer than 1,500 defecting to Colombia.
The Trump administration has related that fear of castigation prevents soldiers from defecting: at least 20,000 Cuban military and intelligence agents are embedded in the Venezuelan armed forces and act as brutal enforcers in charge of punishing of Venezuelans deemed disloyal.
“I think the administration, as well as the opposition, put too much hope in the military rising up,” said a former senior U.S. official who worked on President Trump’s Venezuela policy. “Hope is not a plan.”
Besides this misplaced optimism, President Donald Trump has played into Maduro’s interests through a series of misguided policies. These range from a “Cuba crackdown” to curb support from Cuba to Venezuela, and attacking the Colombian government’s failure to stem the flow of narcotics trafficking.
Furthermore, top US security and military officials have been publicly debating a military intervention for months, placing the Trump administration at diametric opposition to the 14-state Lima Group set up to non-violently pressure the Maduro regime.
“Echar los perros” – To throw the dogs.
This is an allusion to bullfighting and is how Venezuelan courtship is characterised. If a bull refused to fight, dogs would be set upon it. In Caracas, it means to woo. This saying tells us that the line between charm and force can be blurred in the Caribbean, but that the US would be best served by taking the soft- power approach.
Bellicose posturing undermines the laborious task of galvanizing the international community against the Maduro regime. Instead of grandstanding, Washington should sustain the sanctions regime, yet set in motion a robust humanitarian and economic stabilisation initiative, encouraging Lima Group members to develop the domestic legal capacity required to institute similar sanctions themselves. The US should furthermore pressure the UN General Assembly to levy similar sanctions and publicly denounce the regime.
The Trump administration should continue to negotiate and back-channel with stakeholders willing to support a peaceful transition, yet this is only possible if blatant threats are removed from the discussion. Efforts by the United States and Lima Group members should be coordinated alongside the efforts of the Guiadó opposition for maximum effect.
“Niño que nace barrigón, ni que lo fajen de chiquito” – If a child is born with a big tummy, it remains so even if you make him wear a girdle or a belt.
In the old days, in Venezuela, doctors protected newborns’ belly buttons with a special gauze belt wrapped around their stomachs. Today, the phrase is similar to “a leopard never changes its spots” and presciently describes Venezuela’s future struggle to transition back to a prosperous democracy. The ideological element of this struggle is to discredit socialism as a viable agent of national prosperity, and for a future government to provide vital public services while encouraging the decentralised market economy for which Venezuela was once famed.
Guaido’s Plan Pais aims to “stabilise the economy, attend to the humanitarian crisis immediately, rescue public services and overcome poverty,” The plan focuses on helping the most vulnerable and incentivizing foreign investment, particularly in oil. However, its provisions will fall short of tackling with the likely law-and-order crisis following a political transition. Caracas is currently the third most violent city in the world, and armed non-state groups will probably not demobilise if Maduro leaves. These groups might possess greater firepower than state security forces, which could weaken after the collapse of the regime.
To achieve the most dramatic of rebirths – from the famine and persecution of failed socialism to the light of democracy and free markets, international support is vital. There is no doubt that Venezuela was once great. The question is, can it be great again?
Max Enthoven is a research associate with the Australian Taxpayers Alliance.
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