In recent weeks, the people calling in to my morning radio show in the Venezuelan town of Trujillo have asked questions I just can’t answer: “When will the power be back?” “Where can we get clean water?” “How long will we have to deal with this situation?”
Things have been hard for years here, and Venezuelans have gotten used to power disruptions, food shortages and other systemic problems. But lately it’s been much, much worse.
Power outages now last anywhere from 10 hours to five days, and affect critical facilities. The other day somebody from a nearby hospital reached out to me on social media so I could let listeners know that the power at their facility was down. “Thank God nobody was attached to a life-saving machine or in surgery when the power went out,” the message said.
My radio station, Trujillo 102.5 FM, has been a lifeline to local residents. When the power goes out, we’ve been one of two broadcasters able to stay on the air with backup generators. The other is a state-sponsored station.
We don’t promote ourselves as anti-government media, but we do make an effort to go beyond government messaging and propaganda. We bring in experts to share their knowledge, and we talk to ordinary citizens about what they’re seeing and experiencing as they navigate inflation, unemployment, lack of healthcare, and other problems. We don’t simply accept pat government explanations, which always seem to blame anyone but the government.
When you’re struggling to put food on the table, to shower in the morning, and to find work, it’s hard to keep pushing.
In other words, we’re objective, but these days, that’s enough to get a news outlet labeled as an “opositor” (opponent). So far, we’ve remained mostly on the air, but in other parts of the country, radio stations have been shut down by the Maduro regime and had their equipment confiscated.
The worst problem we’ve had is that somebody recently destroyed our backup generators by throwing Molotov cocktails at them. Emergency responders found glass and burned fabric at the scene, and said there was no way it was a mechanical malfunction. Now, whenever there is a blackout, our station is off the air, meaning the government station is the lone voice people can listen to in Trujillo. I was only able to do my morning show once this past week.
Here’s what my days have been like lately. I get up to see if there’s any power in town. If there isn’t, not only does it mean I can’t work; it also means my family doesn’t have water to drink or shower with. It means our refrigerator doesn’t work, so any perishable food has to get cooked right away. Trujillo has started smelling like a never-ending community barbecue, as butchers are forced to get rid of their stock, and neighbors have to grill all the meat they have before it goes bad.
We all spend a lot of time in lines. I wait for hours at ATMs just so I can take out the maximum withdrawal of 3,000 bolivares, the equivalent of less than one U.S. dollar. On top of all our other shortages, there’s also a shortage of cash in my country. Last week I waited three hours to get gas for my car, because fuel stations were without power too. I can’t drive too far because I have to preserve the fuel I have. More and more, people get around by walking, because gas is hard to get and public transit isn’t getting repaired. Every day feels like a national holiday because everything is so quiet.
If there is power, and I can do my job, I’ve been told by my bosses to be more measured in how I cover what’s happening in Venezuela. They’re terrified of being shut down by the government and having their equipment confiscated. That would spell the end of our station. Already, my co-host and I have to find the advertisers for our shows — businesses like jewelry stores, restaurants and an air-conditioner repair shop. But these supporters are experiencing tough times, too, and some of them have told us that, because we’re off the air so often, they can’t pay us anymore.
This past January when opposition leader Juan Guaido challenged President Nicolas Maduro, everybody thought this was the beginning of something new. We’ve been living with this situation for decades now, and change seemed like it was around the corner. We hoped that within a few days, or a week, our nightmare would be over.
Now it’s April, and the protests have gotten smaller, and the protesters’ resolve has waned. Venezuelans are tired. When you’re struggling to put food on the table, to shower in the morning, and to find work, it’s hard to keep pushing.
A few months ago, the world was paying attention to our plight. Now that it’s not clear when or if change will come, nobody’s watching Venezuela anymore. I worry that the world doesn’t see how much worse things are getting.
As for me and my family, we’ve talked a lot lately about leaving. My wife’s an architect, and because the economy is in ruins, she hasn’t worked in a year. Nobody has money to build anything. We’re ready to go, but Venezuela won’t let us leave. We applied for a passport for my 14-month-old daughter soon after she was born. We’re still waiting for it to be processed. Like millions of our fellow Venezuelans, we are stuck, waiting, literally and figuratively, for the lights to come back on.
José Antonio Ocanto is a journalist and host of a daily public affairs radio show in Trujillo, Venezuela. This op-ed was adapted from interviews with Ocanto by Jesse Hardman, who also served as translator.