Protesters in Caracas. Photo by Andres Gerlotti

It’s still two hours from dawn in Venezuela. The most unfortunate feel no hunger in their empty bellies because they’re sleeping. In the unconscious mind, loved ones are nourished. Medicine cabinets are full. Even the dead live, for just a few more hours.

And then today will arrive like a screwdriver to the stomach.

It’s election day in Venezuela, and, in effect, one man is on the ballot. Nicolás Maduro is loathed by 80 percent of the nation, which in December 2015 sent opposition legislators to Caracas en masse to reverse his influence. Venezuelans blame him for the economic crisis that has rarefied food and medicine. Maternal mortality increased 65 percent from 2015 to 2016. The country is emptying as hundreds of thousands emigrate to Colombia, Argentina, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere. The streets — democracy’s last recourse — are mottled with spent tear gas canisters and broken bottles. More than 100 have been killed. Even supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution say Maduro is tending toward dictatorship.

Maduro won’t leave. When the National Assembly tried to recall him, his allied Supreme Court canceled the referendum process and then dissolved the National Assembly. A few days later, that decision was reversed. Maduro seemed to have a better idea: Rewrite the Constitution itself. Today, Venezuelans — those who aren’t boycotting, those coerced by their employersand those dwindling true believers — will elect a 545-member constituent assembly (la Constituyente) to do just that. No one knows exactly what they’ll do, but the opposition suspects the worst: the annihilation of democracy at the hands of a delusional, corrupt elite. I’ve spoken to and heard of Venezuelans prepared to leave the country at a moment’s notice if the situation sours after today.

A close friend of mine is Venezuelan. He’s a psychologist working for a humanitarian agency in the Dominican Republic. I asked him last night to describe his feelings about what’s happening. Here’s what he said:

The most difficult thing to understand is, How did we get to a point where we did this to ourselves? Maduro is Venezuelan, [Assemblyman] Diosdado [Cabello] is Venezuelan, [Defense Minister] Padrino Lopez is Venezuelan. It gives you an immense feeling of emptiness because it’s impossible to know at what moment we lost our way.

We were raised believing we’re singular. To be Venezuelan meant something distinct. And I’m not referring to the usual lies about “racism doesn’t exist” or “we are the most wonderful in the world.” But I grew up in a country where other people were valued. Perhaps we weren’t the people with the most solidarity in the world, but it was unimaginable that a group of Venezuelans would sequester the country and then reduce us to the most basic misery. People eating from the trash, killing each other over ideals.

It’s as if they took our country and threw us the scraps to fight over them. They tore apart families, fragmented society, turned us into migrants. And all that was done by a group of people who grew up on the same land and were raised with the same values as me. That idea kills me.

And now that we’re on the ground eating shit, they want a blank check. These people are seeing the same country in ruins that you and I and the entire world are seeing, but it doesn’t mean anything to them.

At this point, the only thing we want is for them to give us back the country. Just that: that they let us be who we are. The feeling it generates is that of profound impotence.

For the guys on the street protesting, it doesn’t matter to them if they’re killed by the security forces because they know that if the government doesn’t kill them, hunger or bandits will. It’s as if there’s no sacrifice that’s enough, as if they’re physically incapable of providing the most basic humane treatment. It creates a horrible desperation. And of course a soul-crushing sadness. Because we’ve already accepted that we’re not going to see the country turn out OK.

Those of us who are abroad spend half the day wondering if today our family was able to get what they need and how much they paid. Or if they got a medicine that they needed. Or if your brother or cousin was shot because he went out to march.

And now the fate of the country is in the hands of an illegal Constituent Assembly which nobody understands. Which could also mean that if the government feels like it, it can screw with or imprison whomever it wants. It’s as if we were locked up in a mayonnaise jar. And they created three holes for us to breathe, but now maybe they want to seal them. They’ve fucked it all up. At least that’s how it feels.

The fall issue of Latterly will feature stories and images from Venezuela. Subscribe now to get your copy.

Hang in there,

Ben Wolford
Ben Wolford is editor of Latterly. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere.