When King Leopold of Belgium seized the Congo he was after a colony – he was after wealth and prestige in the halls of power in Europe. He never even visited Congo; it didn’t matter. He didn’t care; didn’t need to know; didn’t feel it had any importance. What he did need – rubber. Before synthetics, rubber came from trees in the orient; in Congo it came from vines. It was Leopold’s ticket to immense riches; and consequently the Belgian thirst for rubber was insatiable. A wise steward bleeds a rubber vine slowly, so as not to kill it. But Belgians wanted more, greater amounts than the vines could not provide. If the villagers did not have full buckets when the Force Publique, the feared mercenaries came through they would receive the ultimate punishment. It was the Belgians who invented the chopping of hands. Out of fear the balance of village life changed. Planting ceased; rituals of births and deaths and marriages ended. It all became about the rubber. In their desperation they would slash whole vines and bleed them, draining them of their lifeblood for the insatiable occupiers. Because they could no longer farm, their eating habits changed. Gone were the beans and the spinach and the goat. They switched to fufu, big balls of boiled manioc; a food that requires no work to harvest and very little preparation. Forget that it also has no nutrients – life would be infinitely shorter anyways for the Congolese if they did not produce the buckets-full of rubber for their oppressors.
The violence changes things.
Profoundly, permanently – irreversibly, the violence is changing Venezuela. In Caracas – people don’t go out at night. There is an unofficial curfew – imposed by the gangs. Restaurants are closed, malls do not work. There is no power anyway, so would bother? And no money to spend, even if the stores had something. In Libya, during the years of Qaddafi, life changed. The walls around houses became high; neighbors have ears and eyes are always unwelcome, un-trusted. The dictator’s spies paid well for information. In Raqqa it’s the boredom, when it’s not the brutality, which accompanies people’s lives. Music, dancing – weddings – iftars; they are all gone. People stay home – when they must go out they hold their heads down and cover up. They always will.
The hunger changes things.
In Caracas, the seat of authority the stores are half full at best; the government trying to placate the angry masses. In the villages, the hunger is consuming. Mango and yucca – that’s what they are eating; until the rainy season ends and the mango goes away. Then what? Who knows. Distrust, envy, bitterness. Sorrow, these are the new feelings of a formerly freedom-loving people who thought about life as a party. Now it’s about existence. Seven meals – I’ve said it before – the difference between stability and mayhem is seven meals. But hungry people cannot fight; because hungry people are only obsessed with that one thing. Its humiliating, the hunger. When you once had plenty – when you can remember those times.
The conversations are all about food these days too. How to survive; and what it must be like in the interior. A video of a starving baby; not Ethiopia, not parts of India. But Carabobo state – where I used to stop for fish empanadas during the times of plenty. What can people do – trying to make the difficult decisions in poverty? The brutality of a regime that never really cared exposed. How often have we seen this before? It never ends well.
Dictatorship changes things.
In Congo they still talk about the Belgians. I lived there for years – I know. And the Force Publique, also Congolese – mercenaries who were paid to brutalize their own, the colonizers couldn’t even be bothered to do that, the worst of all labors. In Venezuela – they will talk about the days of hunger forever; like the Periodo Especial in Cuba, or the Killing Fields in Cambodia or the genocide in Rwanda: did you know that North Koreans are a full six inches shorter on average than their South Korean cousins? Self-inflicted destruction is more dramatic; a country falling upon itself and bleeding out in ever-tighter circles; like water going down a drain. First the borderlands go, then the interior, then the regional capitals – and finally Caracas; one great food kitchen with boiling pots of dogs and cats and pigeons in front of an endless line of people with Styrofoam bowls.
When will it end? The hunger. That, of course, is the question – which keeps those of us who think about it up at night; but that is a facile worry for those of us far away – because for those who have not eaten, sleep is impossible.