Hundreds of Venezuelans whose slum dwellings were ravaged by torrential rains were moved into luxury hotels under President Hugo Chavez' orders. True. Simon Bolivar's remains were excavated-- on live television-- in an attempt to prove political enemies poisoned ‘The Liberator’ in the 19th century. Also true. Venezuelan lawmakers had a fistfight in parliament in January. Another truth-- and I recommend the YouTube video. Caracas boasts the world's highest murder rate per capita. One more, grudgingly admitted, statistical truth.
Welcome to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which has come to rhyme with outlandish hyperbole. For the naive foreigner-- an increasingly rare specimen-- disentangling wild fact from wild fiction is as challenging as understanding the country’s endless slang. The nuttiest of tales swirl from animated mouth to animated mouth, ushered around like wildfire thanks to the country's notoriously chatty citizens. Amid so much uncertainty and change, Venezuelans have armed themselves with another national characteristic: colorful storytelling.
A Cuban doctor shot Chavez in the leg after discovering the president in bed with his wife? Heard it. Colombian immigrants are handed a Venezuelan passport in return for a pro-government vote? It's claimed all the time. A plane flies from Caracas to Teheran weekly to foster cooperation between the two unloved regimes? Heard that one too.
These rumors have arisen in part because Venezuela has reached such a heightened state of paradox that nothing is too wild to be repeated. What is actually true seems to lose its importance. Spinning these tales gives the average person a sense of control-- all too rare in this overpowering country-- when much else seems decaying, chaotic and violent.
"We have a low suicide rate here," a Venezuelan told me on my first day, after learning that I was from Switzerland, which has a higher-than-average rate. "Because before you can even think about killing yourself, there's someone out there ready to murder you."
It definitely wasn't the most comforting of welcomes. But what struck me most was the minor thrill she got from dramatically announcing this. Amid a growing loss of agency, especially in elite circles, crafting extravagant tales is a way of reclaiming a small sense of power. As the word improbable loses its bite, it's become difficult to plow through layers of tales to detect what holds inklings of truth. And made it extremely challenging for me to attempt summarizing what seems to be occurring in the country. Every side of this stratified society weaves its own narratives, leaving me grappling for an elusive accuracy in the process.
And so I revert to outlandish paradox. It gleams on every corner of this country's anarchic streets. A gigantic poster advocating Socialism provides shade for a McDonald's in downtown Caracas. Bulletproof jeeps artfully dodge fruit vendors in the street. Kids run around a playground where gangs meet at night. Yes, outlandish paradox rings a little bulky. But it is the safest crack I can make at describing-- not the real, but the surreal-- Venezuela.