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Episode 27

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Translation: Boom / Bust

Translated by Patrick Moseley

[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Thanks for listening to Radio Ambulante. Tomorrow, start your day with “Up First”, NPR’s news podcast. In an Apple Podcast review, Eve Bethel wrote: “Concise and comprehensive.  I listen to Up First every morning on my walk to work.  It gives me a great summary of the top news stories during the day and the upcoming week.” Wake up with Up First, tomorrow morning on the NPR One App and wherever you listen to podcasts.

Have you heard about “Escuela Radio Ambulante”? It’s our new educational project, where we’re sharing resources so you can learn how to produce audio stories in the style of Radio Ambulante.

If you want to learn how to identify a good story, interview techniques, how to write a compelling script, or simply where to start to produce your own narrative podcast, visit us at www.escuelaradioambulante.org.

Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. And this is Sinar Alvarado

[Sinar Alvarado, reporter]: It’s hard for me to identify my origin, if I’m from there or here. It’s like… it varies: like sometimes I feel like I’m from there and others I feel like I’m from here. It’s probably like 60/40, 60% Venezuelan and 40% Colombian, something like that.  

[Daniel]: Colombian because she was born in Valledupar. Venezuelan because she grew up there, in a city called Maracaibo. He was only a few months old when his family moved. He would live there for 30 years.

But like thousands of Venezuelans, Sinar left.  

[Sinar]: Those who are still there—I guess it must be some kind of psychological defense mechanism—see the situation like: “Well, this is really bad, but it’s still manageable.” Because if you don’t think like that you either go insane or leave.

[Daniel]: In 2004, when Hugo Chávez had only been in power for five years and Sinar was 27, he decided to move to Colombia. But he kept visiting Venezuela pretty regularly.

[Sinar]: Now, when you leave and come back, you really notice when you come back, it’s like: “This is really bad. How…how did I deal with this? How did I live here?”

[Daniel]: Instability, inflation, repression…He saw it every time he visited, more noticeably each time.

This is the complicated reality of Venezuela today. One of the most prosperous countries in Latin America has become one of the most chaotic, miserable, and violent. A country that once attracted immigration from the whole region is now pushing people out.

[Sinar]: A lot of people I talk to who’ve emigrated from Venezuela, a lot of people, almost everyone says: “No, I left at just the right time because right after I left things got really bad.” 

[Daniel]: So, when is the right time to leave a country?

[Sinar]: Of course, when a situation is getting worse every day, yes, today is better than tomorrow, and tomorrow is worse, and so on…

[Daniel]: This is a story about leaving and coming back. Of hasty departures and unexpected returns. We’ll start with Sinar’s dad. It’s a little confusing because his name is also Sinar.

[Sinar Alvarado, father]: My name is Sinar Alvarado Royero. I was born in Chiriguaná on October 18th, 1940…

[Daniel]: And in Colombia…

[Sinar]: He had a job. He was a professional. He had contacts. He knew people. He had a radio show and wrote in the newspaper…  

[Daniel]: He had an established career. He was a veterinarian and was doing well. But in the late ‘70s things got a little more complicated for him. Partly because of his own personality…

[Sinar]: He’s always been very belligerent. He never shuts up. He can get explosive. He’s not at all diplomatic.

[Daniel]: He even started getting threats for what he was writing, and in the middle of the crisis…

[Sinar]: An offer came up in Maracaibo and he said: Let’s go. 

(SOUNDBITE FROM COMMERCIAL)

[Song]: When I go to Maracaibo and cross the bridge, I get so excited my mind goes blank…

[Daniel]: It was an offer to work for a veterinary supply company.

[Sinar, father]: I didn’t think twice about it and I thought it was the right time to leave with my wife and two children and explore the unknown.

[Sinar]When you decide to leave, you don’t know when you’re coming back. I mean, you go for an indefinite period. It’s a contract that doesn’t have an end date. Did you ever think about going back to Colombia?

[Sinar, father]When I left, yes.

[Daniel]: And many of his friends said to him:

[Sinar, father]: “You’re really wild,” “You’re really criollo,” “You won’t be able to handle it.”

[Daniel]: But he got used to it. And for Sinar and his sister Martha, Maracaibo would be their childhood home.

[Sinar]: Maracaibo has a port. It’s in front of a lake that opens into the sea, so it’s a really open city.

[Daniel]: Historically the city has always had a strong relationship with the Caribbean: the Antilles, Aruba, Curaçao, Trinidad…

[Sinar]: We had a Trinidadian neighbor, I remember, and one from Puerto Rico and one from Cuba…  

[Daniel]: In other words, it was an international city. And there were a lot of Colombians too. It was a prosperous city.

[Sinar]: Maracaibo didn’t just make money for itself, it brought in money for all of Venezuela…and more.

[Daniel]: Oil exploitation started in this region…  

[Sinar]: That was where they drilled the first well in early 20th century, and for a hundred years they haven’t stopped pumping oil there. 

[Daniel]: That oil would be the main source of income for Venezuela for decades. And that was the country Sinar and his family met when they arrived.

[Sinar]: We arrived in a country where there was a lot of opportunity, a whole bonanza.

[Sinar, father]: I thought I would go back, but after I had been there for 5 months and had my first car and I had already brought all of you, well I had everything I needed.

[Daniel]: We’re talking about a serious economic boom. The kind that you didn’t see in the rest of the region.

[Sinar, father]: In August of 1978… early 1980s, 4 planes flew out of Maracaibo every day full of people going on vacation to Disney World in the United States.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY “MAYAMI NUESTRO”)

[Venezuelan father]: Well, because for her Disney World represents something new. It’s a wonderful world for children.

[Daniel]: And they weren’t just going to Disney. Miami was full of Venezuelans in those years.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY “MAYAMI NUESTRO”)

[Venezuelans in documentary]: Miami…/Miami…/…to Miami…/Right now I’m going to Miami…/To Miami…/ I think I’ll go shopping…/Well, my dad just bought an apartment there so we’re going for the first time this year…

[Daniel]: And Sinar’s family, of course, felt the benefits of the oil boom. In order to understand how attractive all this was for them, you need to really know what life was like for them in Colombia.

[Sinar, father]: We didn’t have a TV. We didn’t have air conditioning. We didn’t have a lot of things. A car? Never.

[Daniel]: But in Venezuela…

[Sinar, father]: You went to a private school. We had two cars: the Volkswagen Brasilia and the Chevy Malibu. We went to the US. We went to Disney and New York. So, that standard of living was why they called it Saudi Venezuela.

[Daniel]: And we’re not talking about the inordinately wealthy. No…

[Sinar]: That was the lifestyle that was accessible to the professional middle class who had run-of-the-mill jobs. 

[Daniel]: Sometimes herders say that when it smells like animalsthat smell from the countryside, that wild smell well they say it smells like money. For a large animal vet, it’s the same. Sinar’s dad smelled like livestock. And that smell of cows, according to Sinar, is the smell that defined those prosperous years.

[Sinar]: There was plenty of everything. Everything was in abundance: food, money, there was room enough for everyone. 

[Sinar, father]: So once you get access to all that comfort you start…you start to lay roots and every day they grow deeper. 

And that was what happened. 

[Daniel]: But behind this bonanza, there was a crisis in the making.

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Herrera Campíns, President]: Today, however, it is up to me to take on a troubled economy with serious signs of structural instability, in which buying power for the middle class has eroded to an alarming degree. I am taking on a Venezuela that is at risk.

[Sinar]: This is president Herrera Campíns, the day he took office in 1979. Only two years after we arrived in Venezuela.

The system was falling apart. But because there was so much money at one point, it took years to burst. What my father remembers as the good times were really the final years of Saudi Venezuela.

If we had been savvier we would have realized that the system was falling apart.

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Congressman]: Mr. President, there’s a word floating around that everyone seems afraid to mention and that is devaluation.

[Sinar]: This was Friday the 18th, 1983…

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Congressman]: The BBC and the Financial Times have dedicated the last 24 hours to indicating the situation in Venezuela…

[Sinar]: For Venezuelans, this was the infamous “Black Friday”… President Herrera Campíns tried to put people’s concerns to rest…   

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Herrera Campíns, President]: Look, there is a series of rumors, of…. pieces of misinformation, internal murmurs connected to a few financial institutions that seem to be causing these institutions to lose credibility in the banking system.

[Sinar]: But that Friday the value of the bolivar, Venezuela’s currency and the strongest currency in Latin America, dropped by half.

The government prohibited the sale of dollars and other foreign currencies.  

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Reporter]: An exchange agreement suspending the sale of foreign currencies…

[Sinar]: But it wasn’t enough…   

You could say that this event divided the country’s recent history in two. The bolivar never regained the same value and the vast majority of us fell into poverty overnight.

You have to remember something that we often forget: Saudi Venezuela was never for everyone. Sure, the middle class, including families like mine, had some comfortable years during the boom, but many people never had access to those opportunities.

You could say that Black Friday marked the beginning of a new period in Venezuela’s recent history. A period of constant crisis. Compared with what’s going on today, well it’s nothing. But you also have to put it in context, comparing what happened in Venezuela with the reality of other countries in the region. The bolivar at that time was always worth more than the other South American currencies. Colombia was experiencing the worst years of drug trafficking. Peru was in the middle of a bloody conflict with the most violent group of terrorists in South America. Argentina had just got out of the Falklands War. Chile, Brazil and Uruguay were still under dictators.

That same year, 1983, my parents separated and a new crisis, a domestic crisis, arose out of the national economic crisis.

The truth is I don’t remember the day my dad left. I don’t remember anyone saying anything to me.

My sister Martha, who’s a few years older than me doesn’t remember either.

[Martha Alvarado]: That conversation, uh, that’s definitely one we didn’t have. I just remember the momentI was about 9our father, our dad, left home, looking considerably, well, upset, standing there with his suitcase, and at that time, I don’t know how he made that decision.

[Sinar]: What I do remember clearly is that from then on it was the three of us. My mom, my sister and me. That was when the hard times started.

What’s ironic is that those next ten years we survived thanks to the country we had abandoned: Colombia.

Even though Venezuela was entering a crisis, the exchange rate still worked in our favor. Regardless, it would take years for exchange rates to balance out.

Many Venezuelans continued to buy things in Colombia. My mom did too. A few times I remember, she drove the ‘83 Chevy Malibu Classic which was their last big purchase after the devaluation to Maicao, a Colombian town that was a few hours from Maracaibo. That was where she bought clothes, shoes, perfumes, jewelry, emeralds, earrings, gold rings… all to resell.

And when my mom came back from these trips…

[Martha]: When she came, we’d normally ask: “What’d you bring us? What’d you bring us?” you know?

[Sinar]: When she arrived, she would put all of these things on her bed. Then she’d take out a little notebook and start putting prices on everything. “This cost this much, so I’m going to sell it for that much.” And she wrote how much profit she would get from each thing.

Our food came out of that inventory. Nothing less…

[Daniel]: When we return, the crisis in Venezuela intensifies.

Thanks for listening to Radio Ambulante. When you’re in the mood for some fun, check out the Ask Me Another podcast for games and puzzles. Try your brain at poetry based on Star Trek, play two truths and a lie, and test your knowledge of 90’s comedy with guests Janeane Garofalo and Lili Taylor. Ask Me Another is like trivia night, but a lot funnier. Play along now on the NPR One app or on your favorite podcast app.

[Sinar]: In my family we always wonder who we are, or what we are: if we’re Venezuelan or if we’re Colombian…  

[Martha]: Well, I think I’ve always been 50/50, you know? I think I’m 50% from Maracaibo at heart, and well from Vallenato because…it’s where I was born. But I’ve been 50/50 since I was little.

[Sinar]: I feel a little more Venezuelan. Probably because I’m a little younger and I never lived in Colombia as a boy. Also, it could be because of my job. Journalism always gets you involved in political issues, in the current moment, which one way or another connects you to the country you’re living in.

And what’s very clear to me is that during my childhood and teenage years, things got more and more complicated.

At the start of 1989, president Carlos Andrés Pérez starting implementing a series of neo-liberal reforms: national budget cuts, increases in gas prices, price increases for public transport…that was when the mess began.

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Carlos Andrés Pérez, President]: The measures that I am announcing to the country on economic matters cannot be separated from decisions aimed at strengthening quality of life and preserving…

[Sinar]: I was about to turn 12. It was that hardest period for my mother, my sister and I. My grandfather had just died, after living with us for 3 years. My mom missed him so much she couldn’t bear to live in that house without him. So we moved to an old house. I don’t know who started calling it this, but most of the time we called it “the Old Ranch.”

We were living there in February the year all the chaos and protests against Carlos Andrés Pérez’ reforms erupted.

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[News anchor]: And this week, the whole world turned its eyes toward Venezuela. Stunned by an enormous and abrupt explosion of social tensions resulting in several hundreds of deaths.

[Sinar]: What’s known as the “Caracazo”…

(SOUNDBITES FROM NEWS REPORTS)

[Reporter]: The initially peaceful protest turned violent to a point that the police were unable to control the clusters of disorder throughout Guarenas.

[Protester]: Right now the students are right to protest in the streets because they’re charging them up to 200% for a ticket and they aren’t recognizing student prices.

[Reporter]: This store which is totally destroyed, burnt and leveled was a large warehouse storing food products. It was completely destroyed in a fire started by looters.

[Sinar]: According to official reports, more than 300 people died and more than 3,000 went missing.

From the capital, the president declared…

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Carlos Andrés Pérez, President]: Now the possibility is arising for us to take the remaining measures and for every Venezuelan, everyone who is participating in the economic process, to know what to abide by. That is what I must do…

[Sinar]: He instituted a curfew. For days we stayed home talking about politics.

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Reporter]: In the area in and around the valley, the situation has become more complicated as this morning’s events transpired…

[Sinar]: Now, I see the “Caracazo” as a symptom of what was to come—that supposed prosperity was hiding massive discontent.  

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Reporter]: Military personnel have also been made available…

[Sinar]: The political system that had been in place for 30 years, alternating between 2 parties, was now nearing its end…

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Venezuelan Government Official]: When we go out into the streets, we aren’t going out to repress people. We are going out to reestablish the order that has been upset.

[Sinar]: It would still take another 10 years for it to die completely. But there was already a lot of turmoil, too much corruption and deterioration.

The same old parties pretending to be the perennial leaders…and people were fed up.

(SOUNDBITES FROM NEWS REPORTS)

[Reporter]: Doctor, what is the situation like in the hospital now?

[Doctor]: The hospital is in a state of emergency. Well, the wounds they’ve sustained are gunshot wounds. These are from run-ins with the police.

[Sinar]: The “Caracazo” showed that the people were ready, the stage was set for someone like Hugo Chávez to appear.

His first attempt to take power was 3 years later, in the failed coup of 1992.

When I decided to leave the country, it wasn’t because of the crisis. That’s something that’s hard for a lot of people to understand. It’s nearly impossible to wrap your head around if you see the situation today, but until relatively recently, you could have a comfortable life in Caracas, even as a journalist. I didn’t leave out of necessity, but rather out of professional ambition. I wanted to write long-form journalism and in Venezuela there weren’t a lot of outlets that published that kind of work. There were more opportunities in Bogotá. So I left in 2004.

Nearly 2 years later, on a visit to Caracas, I met Gaby. Four years passed before we started dating. Gaby is also a journalist. And in 2010, I went back to Caracas for a few months and we started going out. And we fell in love. Not long after, she got a scholarship to go study in Italy and we decided to go together.

And there, in Rome, we started to think about what to do.

[Gabriela Méndez]: What I remember most is a certain amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty on one side and certainty on another. On one hand, I knew we weren’t going to stay in Rome illegally, so Italy was out of the question.

[Sinar]: And even though it was 2011 and Venezuela wasn’t as bad as it is now…

[Gabriela]: There were still a lot of signs, a lot of signals that it wasn’t…it wasn’t doing well. And…

[Sinar]: So we started considering a plan C…

[Gabriela]: Which was Colombia, because ever since I went to Colombia for the first time in 2001, I really liked it and I was in love with this country, I mean, it was like “wow, what do I have to do to…to live here?”

[Sinar]: Marry a Colombian.

[Gabriela]: [Laughs] Exactly.

[Sinar]: But Gaby’s whole family was in Caracas and it was hard to think about not going back. In a way, the deciding factor for us was our work. For two journalists like us, going back to Venezuela and working under the Chávez regime looked less and less appealing.

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Hugo Chávez, President]: It’s taken off the air automatically! It’s taken off the air immediately and will lose its broadcasting license! TV and radio that breaks the law will have their licenses revoked! I’m not messing around!

[Sinar]: Our friends and colleagues were telling us every day how things were going. A lot of independent journalists were losing their jobs. They told us the hurdles they had to jump just to survive.

Several of Chávez’ front men were buying media outlets.

With our savings, we decided that the best option was to try our luck in Colombia.

We made that decision 6 years ago. And it’s interesting. They’ve been incredible, prosperous and enriching years. Years with a lot of work, tough years, but beautiful. We’ve built a family. Our son, who was born in Bogotá, is nearly 4.

And from afar we’ve seen how everything in Venezuela has gone off the rails…

It’s possible the situation in Venezuela hit Gaby harder than it did me.

[Gabriela]: What I didn’t realize or what I never suspected is that… for now at least, I don’t want to go back to Venezuela.

[Sinar]: Why not?

[Gabriela]: Because I think it would really hurt to see the country in the state it’s in. I mean, somehow, living far away is like a shield, a kind of protection against what you know is happening there.

(SOUNDBITES FROM NEWS REPORTS)

[Reporter]: Shortages and scarcity are problems that Venezuelans face every day. There’s no flour, there’s no milk…

[Venezuelan woman]: You can’t find anything. So they have to bring in security because people are desperate looking to see what they get to eat…  

[Reporter]: In addition to the lack of basic goods, pharmaceuticals are also scarce…  

[Venezuelan woman]: I don’t feel safe, even with the guards and the police in the street. Because they are the first people to steal from you and mug you.  

[Gabriela]: Even though we hear about what’s happening from the media 24 hours a day, obviously we aren’t experiencing it first hand, and that’s a way of protecting ourselves because I don’t think I would have been able to deal with with what they’re experiencing in Venezuela…

(SOUNDBITES FROM NEWS REPORTS)

[News Anchor]: Demonstrations and standoffs in several parts of the country have been reported every day since April 1st when the Supreme Court attempted to usurp the functions of Congress, the National Assembly. The opposition demands that Nicolás Maduro step down. The opposition demands new elections. The opposition demands that political prisoners be freed.

[Nicolás Maduro, President]: If Venezuela fell into chaos and violence, and if the Bolivarian Revolution were destroyed, we would go to battle. And what we couldn’t do with votes, we would to do by force.

[Gabriela]: I don’t know, I think I would have already gone crazy or gotten depressed or who knows, I don’t know what would have happened. [Sinar]: Sometimes I feel the same way.

(SOUNDBITES FROM NEWS REPORTS)

[News Anchor]: Things are going from bad to worse in Venezuela. The capital, Caracas, tops the list of most violent cities in the world…

[Sinar]: And I feel guilty. I feel powerless.

[Gabriela]: We haven’t gone in two and half years and I don’t know what we’re going to find. So, I try not to think about it because right now for me, my country is… For now it’s Colombia.

[Sinar]: And you could say I have more experience as an immigrant than my wife. I grew up away from the country where I was born, far from my cousins and my aunts and uncles… In a kind of limbo. Neither here nor there. But for Gaby… for her this is all new. And we talk about it every so often. I know it’s not easy for her.

What do you miss about your city, about Caracas, and your country, Venezuela?

[Gabriela]: Not feeling like a foreigner… Not feeling like a foreigner. Even though I feel very comfortable in Colombia and at home, and we have very close, very similar cultures: we share, I don’t know, cuisine, some expressions, tons of thingsmusic… I’m always going to feel like a foreigner here.

[Sinar]: How do I tell her that you get used to that, or that at some point that changes? That you can come to feel a kind of belonging.

And that’s another thing: a migrant never gives up on the possibility of going back.

In January of this year, 2017, after 41 years of living in Venezuela, my dad went back to Colombia. To Valledupar, which is his city.

And with his return and my sister’s, which is coming in a few weeks, a cycle in the Alvarado family in Venezuela is completed. My mom died in Maracaibo, but I’m sure that if she were alive, she would be planning her return too.

I do think about living in Caracas again. I’m excited about the idea of going back. The climate, the food, the people. I was really happy in that city. It’s the city where I became an adult, where I lived on my own for the first time.

So it’s not an end. My dad’s life is proof in itself. You never know what’s going to happen. Someday, that’s what I tell Gaby, someday we may go back.

Are there any words? Could you list a few words that come to you, that pop into your head, when you think about Venezuela? Words that you associate with your memories of the country?

[Gabriela]: Comfort. Beauty. The thing is…I think the country I remember doesn’t exist anymore… So…

[Sinar]: Here Gaby got choked up and stopped talking. I thought this would happen. At that moment I decided to stop recording.

My instinctive reaction was to protect her, to maybe change the subject or distract her, because I know that talking about Venezuela, for her as it is for many people who live outside of the country, opens a wound. And it hurts.

Venezuela hurts and it hurts a lot.   

[Daniel]: Sinar Alvarado is a journalist, he writes for the New York Times in Spanish and other Latin American outlets. Gabriela Méndez is also a journalist and the editor of the magazine “Bienestar”. They both live in Bogotá.

This story was produced by Silvia Viñas and by me, with help from David Trujillo. It was edited by Camila Segura. The mix and sound design is by Ryan Sweikert.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante includes Désirée Bayonet, Jorge Caraballo, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern and Andrea Betanzos is the program coordinator. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO

Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.

Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.

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