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HIGH

TREASON

A NOVEL

Alberto Ambard and
Amelia Mondragón






To the young generations of Venezuelans.

To Leo and Victor with all the love in the world.




































High Treason


I do not love my country.

Its abstract glory is beyond my grasp

But (although it may sound bad)

I would give my life for ten of its places

And for some of its people,

Its ports, woods, deserts, fortresses,

A city of ruins, grey and monstrous,

Several figures in its history

Its mountains,

And three or four rivers


José Emilio Pacheco.

From “Don’t Ask Me How Time Goes By”1

1964-1968.


Acknowledgements

Our thanks go to all those who took on our project as if it were their own, helping us to collect data and take photos of places we wanted to describe.

We would also like to thank the many people who did not let us give up. Thanks to you, High Treason exists as a narrative and as testimony to many years of essential discovery.

Eternal thanks to all of you.


The authors

PREFACE

Until the beginning of the ’80s, Venezuelans experienced life as one long celebration where the only controversy was whether Caracas or Magallanes would win the baseball league.

However, in 1981, the illusory and paternalistic effect of the oil dollars began to fade away. As oil prices dropped, administrative corruption surfaced as well as marked social economic contrast, which had been brewing since the first government of Carlos Andrés Pérez (1974-1979).

In 1989, Venezuelan people showed their contempt for the rise in the cost of public transport in the “Caracazo,” perhaps the most violent protest ever in Venezuelan history, which resulted in three thousand deaths and the looting of dozens of small businesses. Three years later, two successive coup attempts marked the end of Venezuela’s political stability that up to that point had been the envy of other countries in the region.

However, even when the distance between social classes became more and more pronounced, there was no imaginary collective demanding the total rejection and consequent annihilation of the country’s powerful elite.

Without exception, the democratic governments that came to power after the fall of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958 were characterized by their extraordinary ability to incorporate leaders from all echelons of society into their ranks. It was this efficiency which enabled the heterogeneous governing groups to mediate between the interests of the big capitalists, their own ambitions of power, and the interests of the more vulnerable of Venezuela’s citizens, who lived off promises to eradicate hardship which never came to fruition.

In this way, the patrimonial structure of the governments, although threatened by the dashed hopes of the Venezuelan people, was able to keep the country united even throughout the ’90s. Somehow, the celebration continued.

In 1998, Hugo Chávez—leader of the first coup of 1992—suddenly emerged as a political figure and was elected president after defeating both of Venezuela’s main political parties: Acción Democrática and COPEI. Such a triumph was due in large measure to his radical and belligerent speech, which spoke of the need to emancipate the masses from their exploiters. This soon triggered a profound and violently irrational polarization within Venezuelan society.

Those who shared the ideology of Chávez raised their voices to make demands while blaming their hardships on all those who remained skeptical of the President’s revolutionary political ideology. The skeptics in turn could foresee the isolation that awaited them if they did not publicly side with the Chavistas, even at the expense of their deepest convictions.

Many events took place in this climate of ideological tension but, without doubt, the first of its kind was the Vargas tragedy, which occurred at the same time as the constitutional referendum that eroded the country’s democratic foundation. This incident was the decisive factor in leading those who had voted for Chávez into a deep tunnel of disappointment.

In December 1999, about fifty thousand people died following mudslides in the coastal mountains of La Guaira, in the state of Vargas. Although warnings had been issued since December 10, instead of evacuating the danger zone, Chávez’s government used the media to exhort citizens to vote in the referendum that was set for December 15, just as the tragedy occurred.

On this rainy December day, ignoring the deaths caused by the mudslides and in spite of a meager 45% turnout, Chávez won the right to reconstruct what he insisted on calling “the dying Venezuelan constitution.” The new law soon dissolved congress and transferred to the president the powers and instruments necessary to develop his 21st century revolutionary socialist plan.

After just a year in government, Chávez began to face harsh criticism from the civil opposition, and this grew in strength over the following two years. Amid these growing tensions, Venezuelans turned out en masse to demonstrate in public against the government. Social polarization became much more pronounced and provoked acts of violence.

The first of these was the Puente Llaguno tragedy. On April 11 2002, several of those opposed to the regime died during a demonstration, when Chávez supporters opened fire on the protesters. The next day there followed a failed coup against Chávez. After yielding to public pressure to step down, Chávez returned to the presidency three days later thanks to the support of a considerable proportion of the Venezuelan populace and the failed vision of his political opponents.

With Chávez in power again, tensions continued to mount until they exploded in the Altamira square tragedy. At the end of 2002, and after several weeks of an opposition group gathering in the same square to demonstrate peacefully, Joao De Gouveia, a follower of Chávez, opened fire on the demonstrators, killing three people. The celebration had surely ended in Venezuela.

Since 2003, due to the extreme increase in oil prices, history has repeated itself and the illusion of oil money has helped Chávez to regain his popularity, consolidate power, and radicalize his socialist policies even more, provoking violent demonstrations that have led to a number of tragedies over the years, and which continue into the present.

Supporters of Chávez claim that his government is fairer than those that have gone before because he serves those who were neglected by previous administrations, and that Chávez has sought to tackle poverty, illiteracy, and the inequities of the healthcare system.

On the other hand, his opponents argue that poverty continues to increase while Chávez uses the nation’s assets to develop his political agenda overseas and to strengthen his position within the country through a new social class, the “Chavistas.” In the same way that many people became rich by working the ruling parties in previous decades, those who now support Chávez accrue more wealth and power with each day of his tenure.

With the new bureaucracy, Chávez has created a centralist system that has eroded individual initiative and has acquired privately held assets, despite the Venezuelans rejecting this approach in a referendum called by Chávez himself on December 2, 2007.

In this atmosphere, those who oppose him perceive not only their own personal fragility in the new regime, but also the violent and anti-constitutional nature of his government administration, in which the opposition continuously accuses Chávez of participating in terrorist activity and inability to curb the never-ending crime which plagues the country. Caracas, a city with 7 million inhabitants, is one of the most violent cities in the world today.

The quality of life has fallen to such a degree that Venezuela—a country that until 1982 had traditionally welcome immigration—has lost at least 1.5 million Venezuelans, mostly professionals who have now settled in the USA and Europe since Chávez took power. To date, no information is available on the number of illegal emigrants, so this figure could be higher.

The consequences of the so-called Chávez revolution cannot be completely measured yet. However, there is no doubt that this regime has changed Venezuela dramatically, not only politically and economically, but also psychologically. Venezuela is now a deeply divided nation, and the psychological fault lines are so enormous they threaten the sense of nationhood that has existed in the country since Independence.

While one sector of society keeps hoping for and imagining a better future, others express resignation and bitterness in the face of an onslaught of violence and intolerance.

The novel begins during the festive climate of 1998 and ends in 2007. Although the characters are fictitious, almost all the situations they are involved in belong to Venezuela’s recent history, to its drastic changes and the emotions borne from these changes.









Introduction
(2007)



September 10, 2007

Newsflash! A bomb exploded this morning at the headquarters of Banco del Tesoro in Porlamar where President Chávez was attending the bank’s opening ceremony. Several people were injured, including a camera operator from the national Venezuelan television channel who was adjusting the spotlights close to where the bomb went off.

The person responsible for the attack was shot dead after police located him in Bella Vista. The man in question, 38-year old Maikel Salgado, worked for the government on Margarita Island. It’s believed that Salgado acted alone using a defective homemade bomb that failed to fully detonate. Officials and agents who worked with Salgado have confirmed that he had experience with explosives.

Through television and radio, the first report of the incident reached homes around the country. It also reached market places and supermarkets, cafes and bars, stores and stands, offices, factories, beaches, mountains, and plains. The news even travelled to the jungle, and after being edited and translated, it was transmitted to homes in other countries. These reports sent out by satellite lacked, however, the sense of urgency that could be heard in the voice of the Caracas newscaster, who seemed to know how extremely powerful the event made him sound as he read out the news with a mixture of arrogance and mistrust.

His words took all of Venezuela by surprise, from Caracas to La Guajira in the west, to Santa Elena de Uairen in the south and eastwards to Curiapo. However, the newscaster had no idea of the effects of the attack or whether any of the nation’s twenty-eight million inhabitants felt anger or fear, sadness or joy. You never know how people are going to react until they react, he thought.

It was four in the morning at the police headquarters in Porlamar, Margarita Island. A police officer was looking for the latest baseball results when he decided to switch on the radio. He was alone at that moment, with the newspaper spread out on the lone rickety desk in the room. Hearing a local folk song playing on the dilapidated radio, he started humming along, drumming the dirty nails of his left hand on the porous wood.

Two electric bulbs dangling more than a foot from the ceiling on peeled wires cast a welcome light on the police officer, who sat with his ample belly protruding from his unbuttoned trousers as he leafed through the newspaper in search of the boxing news.

Hanging high on the wall behind him, a picture of the national hero Simón Bolívar, prisoner of old writings and in something of a trance, contemplated the almost empty room and its yellow walls. However, Bolívar could not smell the odor of rancid butter that emanated from these walls, nor could he see, due to the slight angle of his head, the passage where three cells joined.

The three small cells with rusty bars and no more ventilation than the little they shared with the passage were almost entirely cast in shadow. Like the other two, the darkest compartment farthest away from the police officer was covered in a layer of grime consisting of urine, vomit, and dried blood. Amid this pile of filth, that had been accumulating since time began, lay Rodrigo, more disgusted with himself than with what lay around him.

The police officer’s radio began to blare out the news of the day. It was one of those radios that looked like an unbreakable toy. Out of the yellow box rose an antenna, bent in several places by wear and tear. Rodrigo tried to listen to the broadcast but due to the numbness of his brain, the pitiful sound quality of the radio, and the distance that separated him from the guard, he could hardly hear a thing. However, when he made out Maikel’s name, a shudder ran through his body and he began to vomit, leaving on the pestilent floor a fresh record of his stay in the cell.

When the nausea had passed, he sat with his legs bent, leaning his elbows on them to support his head with both hands. The radio repeated the news like a scratched record and Rodrigo was finally able to catch what they were saying about Maikel and Chávez. Inert and trembling, he tensed his face muscles before finally giving way to a broken, dry sob.

When he was able to compose himself, he heard the buzzing of a fly and looked at the ground, searching for it in the puddle of fresh vomit. The fragile rays of light coming into the cell from the weak bulb in the passage helped him to find it, fluorescent green and scrutinizing the feast that lay before it. Restless and greedy, it began to fly around the room, trying to land on Rodrigo’s head and chest. That was when he realized that at some point during the previous night he had been sick down the front of his t-shirt. Another more prolonged fit of inconsolable crying immediately followed.

The fly ended up making do with the vomit on the floor and did not bother him again. Trying to ride out the fresh wave of nausea, Rodrigo stayed still, letting the events that had led him to this Porlamar cell swirl around his head like a swarm of vomit-hungry green flies.




Part One.
The Celebration
(1988-1997)



CHAPTER 1

July 14, 1988

My name is Rodrigo Fernandez and I’m a Spanish language and literature teacher. My friends and neighbors usually call me affectionately but mistakenly “Gallego,” due to my Spanish descent, thinking everything that comes out of Spain must come from Galicia.

My father Emiliano was born in Asturias, where my mother also grew up, although she and her family are from Navarre. They met in Caracas and got married when he was just a bricklayer, and she a seamstress in a children’s clothing factory. He soon became a master builder and she left the factory, but she continued to sew. Now, she works from home, making dresses for the elegant and not-so-elegant ladies in the east of Caracas. I also have a younger sister, Raquel.

At the time I’m telling you about, my adolescence, we lived in an apartment which looked out over Francisco de Miranda avenue, in a neighborhood called Bello Campo, which although it belongs to the wealthier east, is an area mainly inhabited by the middle class, a species now extinct in Venezuela.

Before that, we lived in La Candelaria, a neighborhood notable for nothing apart from the concentration of Spanish and Portuguese immigrants there. The people are versatile, noisy, and unpredictable. Our family upped and left for the east when a professional motorcycle racer who lived in our neighborhood decided to practice in our block and began to serenade us with revving engines and exhaust fumes every ten minutes in the early hours of the morning.

Papa would say that he wanted to flee to the middle of nowhere, giving the impression that he would have been happy if he could have moved to the easternmost edge of the city. Here amid the deep vegetation of the coastal mountain range he would still be able to enjoy the simplicity of the small villages, which at that time bordered on Caracas without wanting to belong to the city. Nevertheless, due to his work and above all the job of my mother, who did not drive and so could not get to her customers’ houses, we had to make do with Bello Campo.

My sister and I were brought up within the strictest Iberian conventions: all privileges were for me, the prince, and all the household chores (cooking, cleaning, washing, and ironing) for my poor sister, whose only fault was having been born a girl. As if that was not bad enough, from the time of her eighteenth birthday, Raquel was a victim of my mother’s sage advice about getting married, something a woman should do while young and preferably to a Spaniard with whom she could bear happy, healthy children. “But how can I do that?” my sister would wonder, when our father had converted our apartment into an inaccessible fortress which deterred those brave enough to imagine my old man as father-in-law.

I often felt sorry for my sister, for her well-kept virginity and the future that my mother had mapped out for her. However, my pity was not of a militant kind, like Don Quixote’s, because I knew from a very early age that despite her tenderness, my mother was a like a windmill, a force to be reckoned with and I did not feel like playing the hero in a story where the only possible outcome was defeat.

I remember that Thursday when I mentioned the matter to Manuel and Alfredo. We were at the beach having a beer, and I decided to use the word “dichotomy” instead of “contradiction” to explain to them my parents’ behavior.

“Dichotomy? What the hell is that? Did you hear, Manuel? A typical word the Gallego pulls out of his sleeve to sound intelligent, ha ha ha!”

With his teasing, Alfredo could conceal the kind intentions that always motivated him when he was faced with my worries.

“Just because I like reading, unlike others I could mention. Sorry, but for a second there I forgot that you wouldn’t know the meaning of the word. Let me explain: reading is basically what you do with porn, except I look at the words”

“What, Rodrigo? Do the words turn you on?”
Alfredo and I laughed at Manuel, who for a few seconds shot me an astonished look as if he was taking me seriously.

That is how it always was. We enjoyed going to the beach, spending hours talking until the afternoon chill took us by surprise, encouraging us to head back to Caracas.

After we had graduated from high school and were waiting to start university, we had a simple routine based on never-ending drinking and the same old jokes, which, though they were mostly harmless, could sometimes be darkly humorous and quite caustic. Anyone who saw us engrossed in this activity would think that we hated each other, when really we were just three supposedly virile young guys, trying to express the immense fondness that kept us together.

We first met at the Don Bosco School in Altamira. Although in those days, public education was not bad in Caracas, my parents had agreed to send me to a Catholic school so that with one lucky shot, Mom could fulfill her Christian duty to educate her son as God required and at the same get a free rein from my father to entertain one of his favorite beliefs: it is not what you know in Venezuela, but who you know that counts.

My father was so satisfied with this agreement that he forgot the ten-hour days he spent on building sites, and my mother forgot the few back-breaking hours she spent sewing. For them the sacrifice was worthwhile. They did not mind working longer hours because they believed that life should be hard—that was what life was for. They had always lived in Venezuela with this belief, differentiating themselves from most native Venezuelans, who treated life like a perpetual party.

My father enjoyed giving me long lectures on what he viewed as the pathological weaknesses of these people. He proclaimed for example that our indigenous people had never had to work like Europeans. He imagined them before the conquest, playing with themselves in the jungle, with mangos, which they would eat later, falling on their heads.

My father’s argument was usually extensive and occasionally metaphysical, digging deep into the country’s history, and usually concluded with the assertion that the last straw was Venezuela’s new oil. Wealth had weakened the Venezuelan character, my father argued, as nothing good comes from an easy life. Without the immigrants from Spain, Italy, and Portugal who began arriving at La Guaira port at the beginning of the fifties, Venezuela would have been a jungle full of onanists of no great consequence.

The Thursday of the aforementioned conversation about dichotomy, while I was settling into bed with a belly full of beer, Papa burst into my room. I saw in his eyes that he was furious about my little alcohol-fuelled vacation to the beach, and without hesitation, he told me he was not putting up with layabouts in his house. I should get a job until university classes began.

He tried to force me into selling insurance for a friend of his who was an agent, but being a son of my country like none other, I had a better idea. During his exhausting litany and shower of saliva, I thought I would get myself a job more suited to a true Venezuelan.


CHAPTER 2

July 20, 1988

Three religions coexist in Venezuela: Catholicism, baseball, and beer. The latter worships one god alone, like the Catholic religion, or should I say one goddess, La Polar, which dominates 95% of the unsophisticated Venezuelan market. However, although its followers claim that Polar is the only real beer, it’s a plural concept known by many names: “the Little Pot,” “Blondie,” and “the Bear” among others.

The night that my father and I discussed my work situation, I called Alfredo to tell him about our discussion, and ask for his advice. He recommended that I contact his cousin, a successful PR agent who employed young lads like me who had just graduated from school, and who were eager to find easy, well-paid work.

Alfredo’s cousin’s ambitious campaign strove to change the beer culture of the Venezuelans drastically, in its effort to overthrow the dominance of Polar forever. As part of this strategy, dozens of youngsters somewhat lacking in the sense department were sent to the restaurants and bars of Caracas with some cash. Their mission was to give the proprietor five hundred bolivars each time they offered their customers the beer in the campaign. Whenever for some reason the proprietors ignored their instructions, our graduates would give them a lecture and, as an afterthought, a ballpoint pen as a souvenir of the money they could have earned.

Therefore, at the age of 18, my first job consisted of going to bars with the mission of spying on proprietors, drinking a few free Polars, giving a sermon or two, and doling out money.

Unfortunately, the great strategy hatched by Giovanni, Alfredo’s aforementioned cousin, went unnoticed. At that time, the people of Caracas were more worried about the growing crime wave. Each weekend, an average of twenty people lost their lives. The causes were different and at times absurd. How can you kill somebody to steal their shoes for example? That is how it was. Insecurity seemed to have reached its peak, and from there things could only get better.

We were wrong however. Only a few weeks ago, my mother was reminiscing about “those glorious days” as she called them, sighing with immense nostalgia, of finding yourself shoeless and bruised in the middle of Francisco Solano avenue, because after Chávez became president, the weekly number of deaths began to multiply in a remarkable way.

With the body count growing daily, some wary citizens began to wonder if we were secretly or unconsciously competing with the Iraq war. If so, the statistics showed that we had nothing to fear—we were way out in front. Caracas had the second highest instance of death from violence in the world; double that of Baghdad, a city in a state of war.2

Several days after the argument with Papa, and several Polars later, I was walking through the center of Caracas, happily thinking about how I had already been in my nice new spy job for a week when a short guy with a scarred face approached me and said:

“Don’t stop, you rich piece of shit, just carry on walking. When I say so, give me your money. You do anything, motherfucker, I’m going to kill you.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the thug was hiding his hands in his nylon jacket. Thinking that he was taking out a knife, I decided to push him and run for it.

“He has a knife! He has a knife!” I yelled at the top of my voice. As I was running, I knew, just as gazelles do, that you don’t need eyes to see you’re defeated, because without looking, I knew he was going to catch me.

The only thing I remember is the coldness that penetrated the back of my ribs, and the immense pain that began to paralyze me while I tried not to fall over. That day I decided that my father was talking sense, and that hard work was my destiny. The last few strides of the chase became my first steps to reality.



CHAPTER 3

July 21, 1988

I woke up in an extremely clean and well-lit single room of a private medical center, and saw my mother sitting on one of the two chairs for visitors by the large window. On the small table between the two chairs was a vase of white lilies. For an instant, I focused on them, trying to decide whether they were real or plastic, but my vision was blurred. I tried to move but the pain in my ribs paralyzed me. Since I was feeling cold, the first sound that came out of my mouth was a mumbled request for a blanket.

“Darling, what a scare you gave us! How are you feeling, honey?” asked my mother closing her Hola! magazine, to which she had always been addicted. She leaned over to attend to me.

I repeated that I was cold but as she still did not seem to understand, I decided to change the message. Gathering all the energy in my belly, I managed to emit a kind of gurgle that sounded something like “water.”

“Rodrigo, how can you ask for water when you haven’t eaten for twenty-four hours?! Look at you; you’re like a scarecrow, my poor dear! Here’s some fruit salad I made for you last night when I couldn’t sleep. I also made you some squid with onions that you’re having as soon as you come home… Let’s see, let’s give our little boy a bit of pineapple and orange so that he gets well and strong again!”

I opened my mouth with the sole purpose of rejecting her offer and a spoonful of chopped fruit was rammed into my mouth, making me shiver. Resigned to my mother’s stubborn insistence, I had no choice but to endure the torture.

“You were lucky, kid,” a doctor who had just entered the room announced in an incredibly powerful voice. “The stab only fractured a rib. We’re going to keep you in for observation for a couple of days. Then if everything is ok, you can go home on Friday.”

When I saw him, I forgot all my suffering, as the doctor was so amazingly short that he had to look up to see my mother, who was small herself and walked with a stoop due to the sewing. He checked my wound, and since the hospital bed was higher than usual, he looked like a greyhound busily sniffing out a bone it had lost the night before.

Removing his face from my shoulder, he shot over to the door at the speed of light, which astonished me as much as his size and similarly distracted me from my pain. He seemed to me a diminutive Hermes, the Greek god with winged feet.

Before leaving, he stopped dead and, without noticing the touching devotion with which my mother attended to me, said to her in a brusque voice that resonated like heavenly thunder:

“Ma’am, please don’t hassle the boy too much while he’s still feeling the effects of the anesthesia. Give him a few sips of water.”

That same afternoon, my room was transformed into something like a Spanish tavern. I was on display like a leg of Serrano ham at the bar, bruised and being ripped open again, this time psychologically although no less deeply, as my school friends who came to see me joked and teased me about how I looked. Taking advantage of the party atmosphere, the nurses, who were almost all young, began to come in at random intervals on some pretext or other: a juice, the thermometer, the drip, urine… humiliated, I listened to my friends’ jokes, applauded by their youthful paramedical audience.

“What happened, Rodrigo? Did you stick your foot in your helmet?”

It was Vicente. He was talking about that embarrassing episode in my short baseball career when I was running to second base and my helmet fell off and got wedged on my foot, forcing me to dive ridiculously to the ground.

I bore the sarcasm like a hero, as I did the throbbing from my wound, which was getting stronger and stronger, as if the anxiety that had gone in with the knife was still inside, trapped by the stitches. At night, the pain was unbearable, so the doctor prescribed me intravenous morphine, which I could self-inject by pressing a trigger.

The nurse on shift, much larger than the ones on day duty and with the face of a sergeant, showed me how to use the lever that dispensed the painkiller.

“When you feel pain, press here, and if you need anything, press this other button and I’ll come right away,” she said, pointing to the controls.

Ironically, I concluded that in the field of medical services, you could get anything you wanted by pulling a trigger, whether you had an automatic prefilled syringe full of drugs in your hand like in my case, or a pistol, like when we decided to spend Easter Week at the beach near Cata Bay, where my father had rented a house.

My sister, around six at the time, used to suffer quite severe asthma attacks. The night before the trip, she had slept badly, but my father was not in the least bit worried, being convinced that sea air cures everything. Although it was quite late when we got to the beach, Raquel and I went for a swim and chased each around on the sand for ages. Perhaps because of the excitement and God knows what else, my sister had a strong asthma attack. At midnight, Papa got us all in the car and in ten minutes, we were at the local first aid clinic, run by the state. It was nothing more than a small gloomy shed with a waiting room furnished with old chairs. Not a soul was around.

Holding Raquel in his arms, my father begged the male nurse to help each time he came to tell us that the doctor was coming. Papa’s pleas and the rasping breath of my sister mingled with thuds of domino pieces and roars of laughter coming from the back of the hut.

After half an hour, Raquel began to turn purple and my father, after giving her to my mother, got up very slowly, went out of the clinic toward the car, and came back in even more slowly, if that were possible, with hardly a glance at us. The passageway, which led to the back of the hut almost swallowed him up. After barely a minute, there was a deep silence. We heard his voice, which was so hoarse we barely recognized it.

“If the kid dies, then you die too, you son of a bitch”

At that moment, the doctor appeared in the waiting room followed by my father, who was pointing a gun at him, his eyes looking bloodshot. The imposing stature of the doctor contrasted with his young face, fearful and dim-witted.

Until then, I did not even know that my father owned a gun. I’ve never seen it since, despite inventing excuses to stay at home alone and go through the cupboards. And I’ve never seen that look on my father’s face, darkened by hatred and despair, since that day.



CHAPTER 4

July 27, 1988

My convalescence days were very quiet. Alfredo, Manuel and I kept ourselves amused by hanging out at Manuel’s house or playing dominoes. We knew that once classes started at university, our lives would change forever, and even though we looked ahead thinking that the future would bring good times, we were not in a rush to be separated. Even if we could carry on meeting each other, the careers that we had chosen would involve different rules and ambitions. So, along with a sense of worry about this new world that we would be inhabiting in a few weeks’ time, there was also a feeling of deep nostalgia for the old world we were leaving behind.

We preferred meeting at Manuel’s house because he had a pool, tennis court, and games room where the previous owners had installed a great billiard table, two dartboards, and a multi-functional table with roulette to boot. Dazzled by the luxury, Alfredo and I, and sometimes even Manuel, who couldn’t but have noticed our unceasing awe at the house’s fixtures and fittings, all tried to make light of the great fortune of the Sánchez family, who seemed to have amassed immense wealth in the last few years.

“Shit, Rodrigo, I can’t sleep,” joked Manuel only a few weeks after moving to his new house. “I’m used to hearing shots, car brakes, and sirens and now all I can hear is the frogs croaking.” And he was laughing because the croaking of the frogs gave him the chance to show us his incredible repertoire of onomatopoeic words, which made us think that instead of sleeping, Manuel would happily spend the whole night learning to imitate grasshoppers, birds, toads, and cats in heat, just to impress us.

Before moving to the mansion in upscale Las Lomas de Prados del Este, Manuel Sánchez lived with his parents in Maripérez, a quite centrally located neighborhood that had been built up in the seventies. The Sánchez family apartment was comfortable, although rather basic, and was in keeping with every other building that went up in Caracas during that decade.

The families that lived there were also similar. They were mostly young professionals with small children and great aspirations, especially where climbing the social ladder was concerned. Theirs had been the first Venezuelan generation that had benefitted from the expansion of the universities, and now they worked for national and international corporations, for the government, or in one of the many industries that, in those days, were turning Caracas into a real metropolis. Too happy due to the oil bonanza, this burgeoning class did not realize that they were dependent on jobs, fixed salaries, bonds and bonuses that could all suddenly disappear if the country went into economic decline.

Alternatively, perhaps some, like Mr. and Mrs. Sánchez, felt that everything comes to an end. Manuel’s mother was a lawyer and his father was an accountant at Jeep Venezuela. When they married, he was a car salesman, something he was probably born to do, as he was a genius at convincing people to buy things they did not need. However, after a few years Mrs. Sánchez thought her husband should build himself a more solid career, and so he started studying at night to leave his vocation behind.

In 1984, when Jaime Lusinchi became president, Mrs. Sánchez, who in those days worked for herself as a notary in a tiny office on Baralt avenue, landed an important job with the county of Baruta. Four years later, Mr. and Mrs. Sánchez moved to the mansion in Lomas de Prados del Este. In addition to extraordinary luxuries, they also had a chauffeur and a security guard, two new cars, three servants, and made many trips abroad.

Their good fortune disappeared when money was embezzled from Jeep and all heads turned toward one of the bosses and Manuel’s father. Forced to retire, Mr. Sánchez was never able to get a decent job again, and gradually and discreetly began to fall to pieces, as he was an introverted man, or at least, as Manuel would tell us, he had become that way over the years.

I always thought that the strange nature of Mr. Sánchez had a lot to do with his wife. He always looked at her as if he was seeing her for the first time, although not in a pleasant way, but rather with frightened and sometimes terrified eyes, like someone lost in the forest who suddenly sees a wolf. Thinking back now, I’m not sure whether the real corrupt one was Mr. Sánchez, quiet and discreet, or his wife, a plump woman who pretended to be sophisticated, but who would gossip like a fishwife all the time, only taking a breath to crush the ice in her Cuba Libre with her teeth. One of those afternoons as we were sunbathing at the swimming pool, Mrs. Sánchez shouted to us:

“Manuel, Rodrigo, Alfrredo, come over here a second and help me with this!”

“Jesus, my mom is a pain in the ass. Turn a blind eye and maybe she’ll shut up.”

“Manuel! Boys!” Her bothersome chattering got the better of us.

“We’re coming!” cried Alfredo.

When we reached the garage, we saw a huge truck filled to the brim with boxes of anisette, sugar cane liquor, and cheap rum. There must have been at least three hundred boxes. The security guard and the chauffeur were already busy unloading them.

“But Mom, are you crazy? Rodrigo’s still screwed up with his injury and there are like a million boxes of liquor here. Why the hell did you buy this junk?”

“First of all, show your mother some respect,” said Miriam Sánchez with a stern face. “Second, these boxes are from the mayor’s office. We’re organizing the rally of the century. I don’t know what will happen in the rest of Caracas, but I’m telling you that in Baruta the vote will go to Acción Democrática no matter what! Carlos Andrés Pérez for the people! AD will make our day!”

The debate went on. Meanwhile I had to laugh at the ignorance of Miriam Sánchez. The Acción Democrática had no chance! When it came to corruption, Lusinchi could only be outdone by the head of their clan, Carlos Andrés Pérez, who Venezuelans had already seen in power filling his pockets with large sums of money. Surely, they would not re-elect the Acción Democrática’s most notorious thief. However, in December of 1989, history smiled down once more on populism and rum.



CHAPTER 5

July 28, 1988

It was one of those many nights that I slept over at Manuel’s house. We used to switch off the light and chat for a while. Sometimes we got deep into “heavy” conversations and would talk into the early hours without sleeping a wink.

More than just chitchat, the heavy conversations were a kind of ritual for us, as we would cautiously circle around topics before finally homing in on the one that preoccupied us most, and that usually ended up provoking uncomfortable memories and confessions that over the years cemented our friendship. Quite often, these conversations involved the three of us, but that evening Alfredo had gone to the movies with his girlfriend, Maria Fernanda.

Although Manuel’s bark was frequent and tough, he did not bite. On the contrary, he was the most gentle and sentimental of the three of us. With the transparency that I had often envied, and not without making a joke of it first, he expressed his want of a vocation and his ineptitude
to me:

“I don’t have a frigging clue what to do, Gallego. The problem is I just don’t know what I wanna do. Look at you, dude. You pretty much got lucky with your literature thing. And Alfredo…, well he’s a genius. He’ll graduate and become a brain surgeon for NASA… But me, pana3, to tell the truth, I don’t give a shit. This lawyer disguise is just like, something to do…”

Manuel was about to start a law degree at Universidad Santa María, a private university that required little for candidates to be accepted. He had enrolled without thinking it through, encouraged by the idea that the professors there did not bore their students with philosophical stuff: law was law; you just had to memorize it parrot-fashion and learn a couple of clever tricks to apply it.

At least that was what Manuel’s mom, who had also studied at Santa Maria, said about her teachers, or rather what she quoted them as saying, imitating them in a pompous way, as if she was talking at the Roman Forum. I can still remember her puffing up her chest and putting on tame animal eyes to pronounce the word “subtleties” in a stage whisper without the final “s”, perhaps with the intention of simplifying the question of law even more.

Miriam was delighted that her son had chosen to follow in her footsteps, but no one had approached his father about it. Since Mr. Sánchez had no option but to retire, Manuel seldom mentioned him, and I think that father and son hardly spoke. Manuel felt sorrow for Mr. Sánchez rather than animosity, watching him deteriorate day by day.

As I was listening to Manuel in the total darkness of the room, I imagined the resignation etched on his face and my heart skipped a beat. My friend was not a dramatic type; on the contrary, his true talent consisted in his ability to laugh at his own misfortunes. At the most difficult times of my high school life, I always went to Manuel, not so that he could solve my problems, as he was never any good at that, but to hear him laugh and to understand the simple way he looked at things.

Right then, I did not even have the heart to tell him about the sense of uneasiness I was also feeling, which might have helped him to overcome his own discomfort. Deep down, and in an egoistic way, that night I was hoping he would rise from his own ashes as he had done on other occasions, spontaneously and without even noticing his own miraculous rebirth. He did not let me down, as after a few minutes I heard him say casually:

“My life is the country, pana. I’m telling you, just give me a hammock, a beer, a couple of kids messing around, my wife, and the country. Easy life.”

His frankness was a ray of sunshine that invited me to tell him about myself. Nevertheless, I did not feel able to talk to him about my vulnerabilities, not out of pride, but because I did not want to tarnish the image he had of me. Of course I liked literature, but not as much as my friends thought; I wouldn’t lose my sanity if I had to leave it behind. In addition, the idea of writing did not appeal to me in the slightest, as not many could keep hunger at bay with a few poems or books. For me, studying literature was just as comfortable and necessary an option as law was for Manuel. I would be a teacher with a half-decent salary and, above all, my studies wouldn’t put financial pressure on my father. What he had to pay for my high school had been enough, and for that reason I had decided to study at Universidad Central de Venezuela, completely funded by the government.

The word “vocation” did not mean any more to me then, when I had just turned eighteen. While others saw studying at university as a kind of lucky charm that would help them to satisfy monetary or personal goals or both, I had just made a short-list of the degrees I could easily study for, without denting the family budget and without going crazy learning about things that did not interest me and that I did not understand. As far as university degrees went, the verb “to choose” was a breathless bird with nowhere to fly.

However, instead of reaching out to Manuel and telling him exactly how his words revealed so much of myself to me and how similar we were, even when he was surely the brave one and I the coward, I wrapped myself up in the absolute silence and total darkness of the bedroom while he went on talking:

“Yeah pana, I just don’t want to complicate things. I know I have to do something; I wouldn’t be very good at being poor. But hell, pana, medicine, literature, no thanks. Keep it simple, pana. My thing is some simple business that pays enough to keep me happy, without the horrible stress that people create for themselves.”





CHAPTER 6

August 8, 1988

It was one o’clock in the afternoon. I went to the Foreign Office to renew my passport as Alfredo, Manuel, and I were planning to go to a rock concert in Miami. I woke up really early and got there at 6:30 in the morning, thinking I would be first in line and could leave that bureaucratic hellhole soon after.

Unfortunately, I did not know about “the numbers”. Basically, you take a number and it goes in a lottery. So no matter what time you arrived, you could be the first or the last on the list. As the first office clerk arrived at eight, the numbers did not go into the lottery until 9:30. I got number twenty-three. They told us not to even consider leaving the building: If they call you and you’re not there, you miss your turn. If a stamp is missing, you miss your turn. If you don’t have the right number of photos, you miss your turn. And they always tell you off, no matter what.

Years later, I discovered with surprise and shame how absurd it was to travel abroad just to see a rock concert. Where I was going, to the richest country in the world, education, and retirement meant huge expenses for the average citizen, so that for them, leaving the United States was a luxury, just like many of the habits that some of us Venezuelans had adopted at that time, thanks to the oil dollars.

“Twenty-three!” They called my number.

As I approached the window, sticky with sweat and having wasted three precious hours, I felt angry when I thought that Manuel and Alfredo had renewed their passports the common Creole way. That is, from home and under the table, fattening up the squalid salary of some foreign office official. There I was, condemned to the tyranny of the lottery tickets for supposedly being a good person.

They’re off! They all get away cleanly except for Caravaggio whose jockey had to …”

The horse race began just as I was handing my documents to the official at counter number ten, a thin nervous man who, loyal to the national sport of our people, pressed his ear against the portable radio and ordered me to wait.

Seventy-two seconds, coming up to the sixth furlong and “I Love You Baby” is still in front!”
With crazed eyes and with regular thumps on the counter, the man yelled at his radio.

“C’mon, dammit, C’mon!”

I took advantage of the moment to glance discreetly at his horseracing magazine and prayed to all the saints in heaven that his favorite “Trojan” would win the race.

That was my lucky day.

CHAPTER 7

August 22, 1988

In the middle of August, Manuel, Alfredo and I went to Miami to see The Cure in concert, a rock group we worshipped.

We had planned the trip for months thinking it would be the cherry on top of the cake of this part of our lives. Indeed it was. None of the Miami nightclubs that friends had recommended to us let us down, possibly because we were drunk, although we always had the good sense to reserve a bit of sobriety to get to the concert and back to our hotel in one piece.

We did not even see the beaches on Miami Beach, at least not during the day, so we returned to Caracas no more suntanned than when we had left. We also did no sightseeing. My friends were not interested since they had been to Miami several times and had already seen the sights. Even though it was the first time I had set foot on Miami soil, I had no interest in crocodile parks or rainbow parrotfish. I only wanted to savor the delights of living without my father’s early morning alarm call and my mother’s soups.

I experienced pure joy, or possibly something close to nirvana as I realized that no one cared if I did not shower or if I wore the same t-shirt day after day. Or if I sat at a kiosk, or on the beach or just on some street eating hamburgers full of mayo and ketchup. For me, much more than for Alfredo or even Manuel, the trip to Miami was the craziest and most pleasurable send-off that anyone could ever possibly give to their adolescence.

Out of the three of us, Alfredo had been the most prone to living in the future. While Manuel and I did stupid things, Alfredo swayed like a sail in the wind, leaning toward common sense or brashness depending on the moment, without giving himself completely to anyone.

Even at the airport, when we were about to board the plane for Miami, a maturity alarm went off in his head and he surreptitiously went to a public telephone booth to call his girlfriend, to whom he’d promised to report every day. He was trying to stay loyal to his word, as keeping Maria Fernanda happy must have been so important to him that he patiently put up with the teasing that Manuel and I inflicted upon him.

Our sniggering started as soon as Alfredo turned his back and spoke into the receiver in a sweet, hoarse whisper, searching for impossible privacy against the wall. That sunny day, full of expectations of what we would find in Miami, neither Manuel nor I understood a thing about commitment, as neither of us had ever had a girlfriend. Calling Maria Fernanda, to whom Alfredo had only said goodbye the night before, seemed ridiculous if not totally pathetic.

Alfredo was the most methodical and focused of the three of us. He belonged to a well-known family in Caracas. His father, Roberto Piruggi, of Italian descent, had studied architecture at the Universidad Central in Caracas and had finished his studies in Italy. On his return, he married Isabel, Alfredo’s mother, a pleasant woman from a good Caracas family. She had recently graduated as a dentist and now shared her time between teaching and looking after the teeth of her very prosperous patients.

Despite his success as an architect and his exalted social position, Roberto exuded popular virtues. Among other things, he religiously attended a shady domino game every Friday, about which questions were strictly forbidden. No one knew a thing about the contestants, not even which part of town they came from. Whether it was his character, or what he had learned in his mysterious exploits, Roberto also had an extraordinary ability to come to the level of the person he was talking to, regardless of their social status, beliefs and habits. For the colorful crowd of people that he did business with daily, Roberto was the “soul brother” and the gutsiest of his group of friends.

With him lived his father, “Nonno,” who had emigrated from the south of Italy with his wife Nina in the forties. When he had been widowed twenty-three years before, he had no desire to his native village of Casoria near Naples. He did not feel homesick for his native country and never talked about his youth. The only thing he said about his father, Alfredo’s great-grandfather, was that he had died young in a hunting accident. Sometimes Nonno was heard talking about his mother and younger brother, who had looked after her with great care in her old age until she no longer wanted to go on. When he talked about them, Nonno had the same cryptic tone that Roberto used when talking about his domino games.

Strapping and energetic for his seventy years, Nonno was no Joe Schmoe. He had made his fortune in Venezuela importing wine and cheese, a pioneer rather than an immigrant, who effectively was ahead of the whole Italian community in immigrating a few years later. This helped him to stand out from his fellow citizens and establish himself in the country. Some people still remembered his generosity back in those days, but Nonno was not one to sit down and be flattered or to reminisce about old times. He was satisfied with himself and his family, and submitted to the ailments of old age with more patience than he did visits from his fellow citizens.

Despite the annoyance caused by those speaking his language, the grandfather oozed with pride in his native Italian countryside, its wine, language and Neapolitan songs. He was racist in an eccentric and impulsive way, as his era was one of “supermen” who, for better or for worse, overcame with the fist, like Mussolini. He proclaimed left, right, and center that men should not only be classified according to their color and nationality, but also by their courage and intelligence. If a man was intelligent and had “balls,” he had the right to any skin color he chose. He did not put women into any category, apart from those who loved gossip and intrigue. These he classed as witches and would never call them by their first names, even though he may have known them for fifty years. Instead, he addressed them as “madam,” so that the witches never had an inkling of his disdain for them. He did not want to offend them in any way, although for him they were not real women.

“Women are like flowers,” he used to say. “Each one gives off a different and marvelous perfume. God gave men who are unable to smell them a crooked nose and a miserable existence. What’s the point of life without the fragrance exuded by women?” That is what he would tell Manuel and me, smiling wickedly with a glint in his eye. We, mere kids at the time, were in awe of Nonno’s wisdom. We dedicated ourselves desperately to the sense of smell only to conclude that we were doomed to a miserable existence, since we could detect only three kinds of smells in a woman: the smell of onions from my mother, the smell of vinegar from Miriam, Manuel’s mother and a delicate floral perfume that Isabel, Alfredo’s mother would put on before going to work.

Alfredo, the eldest of two brothers, was the perfect result of this extraordinary diversity represented by his parents and his grandfather. On one hand, he was a methodical, moderate and responsible individual with a great sense of morality. He could apply himself passionately to any discipline, whether it was sports, studies or strange hobbies, such as dissecting animals, a pastime that occupied him for a long period. On the other hand, Alfredo was lazy, mischievous and drunken, fond of playing jokes and, despite his extensive vocabulary and quite good manners, could be extremely vulgar.

Unlike the Sánchez family, the Piruggis were not flamboyant. For them, money was more like a custom that had grown as solid over the years as the virtues and weaknesses that everyone possessed, but was no big deal.

I loved going to visit them, as they were a pleasant group that got along well together, very similar to my own family, or how my family could have been if it was not for the obsessive hierarchal system that beset us. We were divided by the idea that debating was my father’s privilege, overseeing the household was my mother’s task, and that my sister and I had different responsibilities which corresponded to our gender. However, in Alfredo’s family, where everyone had complete freedom to follow their own inclinations, no one used rank to instill respect. The adults in the Piruggi family managed to tame their children and the friends of their children effortlessly.

“How are you, sweetheart? I dreamed about you again last night, honey. My princess, as soon as I get back to Caracas I have a cuddly toy to give you…”

Once at the hotel, Alfredo talked at length with Maria Fernanda on the phone again, armed with a handful of sweet nothings while Manuel and I watched a movie. Alfredo’s relationship with his girlfriend did not bother us in the slightest; quite the opposite, we took it as a challenge to our linguistic wit:

“Ridiculous, she’s got him under her thumb, he’s her slave, a lapdog….” The names rained down on our friend even in front of Maria Fernanda who found it amusing, passing them off with childish gestures. For her, Manuel and I were jesters in a court where she was of course the queen, and Alfredo her consort.

Getting on well with Maria Fernanda who was from real Caracas high society had advantages we could not ignore. For as long as her fragile teenage relationship with Alfredo lasted, Manuel and I would get into the best parties at the Caracas Country Club and even occasional brunches with dozens of impatient rich girls desperate to let their hair down.

As Alfredo was still on the phone, Manuel stopped the film to tell me:

“Pana, as soon as we get back, we have to meet up with Mafe’s friends.”

It took me a while to reply as I was distracted by the sudden disappearance of Sharon Stone’s legs from the screen.

“Shit, chamo” I said, taking the remote control away from him and switching the TV back on. “Don’t you think it sucks how those snobby girls introduce themselves, reeling off their two hundred names as if they’re saying the rosary?”


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