I sat looking into the brown eyes of a beautiful twenty-one-year-old university student, Sairam. Her face was framed by dark long hair; she folded her hands and quietly said in English, "Dr. Brian, we are sitting on a time bomb."
Just out of six months in Helicoide Prison for her public protest against the government, this fourth-year student had been squeezed into a small cell with five other students. Because there were only two small cots, they had to take turns sleeping.
Venezuela, a beautiful country with natural resource of enormous magnitude, is any day on the verge of collapse. The yo-yo effect of its huge oil reserves has contributed to a series of bizarre social and economic experiments, which could push the country over the economic edge. In the government's anxiety to control, its Marxist-minded political establishment has made it into what is akin to a police state. I was told that when I preached in churches and spoke in various social forums and interviews, I would be observed. Who was I? Why was I here? What harm might I do? These and other questions were being asked.
The wearing edges of this failing social experiment is evident: garbage not being picked up, police interspersed along the streets stopping drivers to look in cars for no reason other than control and intimidation. Days before we arrived, Venezuela's currency was devalued 300 percent. There are four-hour line-ups for food basics. And in a strange twist of economic sense, gas for cars is one-half a cent per litre—four cents a gallon.
It has a 500-year history of European and more recently indigenous dictatorial control. In 1999, President Chavez inherited a country wobbling on an uneven platform of social and economic inequities. His promise to bridge the rich/poor divide and reduce corruption secured his engine of political control, which in time he drove off the track. Some promises he could keep, as long as oil was floating around $100 a barrel. When that collapsed it undercut his government's ability to fulfill its promises.
What is acknowledged are major crises at hand. It's as if a "perfect storm" is about to blow in on this South American people. As I met with economists, working people, professors, pastors and politicians, I learned more about these crises.
The charismatic Chavez with his ideas and presence marginalized public institutions and their independence. By the time he died, they had been so eroded that civic powers such as the judiciary were under the thumb of political masters. Stories abound of justices penning decisions with the muscle of the military at their side.
Hour-long lines for bread and milk indicate that something is fundamentally wrong. The gyration of world oil prices has tumbled the country's economy on its nose. What is not known is what backlash civil strife might bring. It is feared that this may be a natural outcome as the poor get shoved further out of line by the powerful.
This speaks of the third crisis, which is social. The poor, lining up behind the government, believed that what Chavez and his political inheritors said was true and would be done. The people had had a history of quasi- slavery, as their economic masters had in the past kept them in life-existing poverty. Expectations rose and for a time they were partially met. Refrigerators and washing machines were delivered, as part of that promise. But when parts were needed, the shelves were bare. Countless billions passed hands, providing relief for some, and a measure of economic help. Now that's gone. The country is bankrupt without a chance of even servicing the debt.
The cultural web has been woven with a mantra that says, "Depend on the state." With this underlying political philosophy, industries were taken over and now most are in tatters. Newspapers, television stations, magazine and radio companies have been bought out by those who favor the government. Now with no voice to help offset official propaganda, the social fabric is not only coming undone, but it's dissolving.
These four rivers meet at the gorge of moral degradation, catapulting a society from its moorings into the unknown. Last year there were 25,000 assassinations and killings. The number of kidnappings is unknown, and corruption is off the scale. Even the international study group, Transparency International, says it is no longer possible to measure Venezuela's level of corruption. Layer upon layer, violence and corruption, handmaidens of the powerful, rule. While these factors exist in various degrees in many countries, here corruption has become a statecraft.
Why am I painting such a picture? Because Christian colleagues asked me to tell this story. While the standoff between President Bush and Chavez was dramatic, most assumed that with his oil-rich reserves, Chavez would bridge the chasm of possible social disorder. Now they say it has gone too far.
Stories of Faith
Yet here in the center of pending collapse is a common thread of faith, weaving its own mosaic. It is strong, joyful in witness, doing works of grace and kindness, wrestling with how faith intersects political control, investing in the hearts and minds of its people. Let's visit two moments and places.
In the heart of Caracas on the edge of the very poor area of its capital city, I walked from the platform to sit in the front row with the congregation, alongside Sam Olson native son, longtime colleague and pastor. Fifteen hundred had gathered for the third morning service. A choir lively in Latin rhythm was carried by a twelve-member band – three trombones and three saxes, two drummers, three keyboards, and a trumpeter from Cuba. Their mix of lilting Latin melodies was punctuated by jazz interludes as a horn or sax picked up the melody in a cadence of soulful peace. Preaching that morning I was lifted in spirit by the people, something a preacher experiences only occasionally. Sunday night, a much smaller church, there was the same sense of joy and trust. This was the first moment.
The second was Monday morning, meeting with CRIS (Christian Network for Social Interaction). Their vision and purpose: to engage their crumbling world with a rebirth of social, economic and political life and integrity. I asked for a quick bio: they are a mix of economists, professors, politicians, engineers, pastors, reporters, and lawyers. I spoke about the call of Christians to engage the public square, and then took questions: how to be a Christian in the various spheres? When to object? When to give in? I watched and listened to their honesty and fears, knowing they realized they were close to a precipice. Would some of these leave as thousands of their fellow citizens had done?
I have met few groups in such calamitous moments who, driven by concern and informed by their Christian faith, are searching for ways to work with a community in which they purpose to live out their faith.
Sairam is not a believer. When I asked if I could pray for her and her colleague. She smiled and said she wanted that. I asked if she had felt Christ's presence in prisons, but such talk and the very idea of spiritual presence seemed foreign, but what she did know was that she had been visited in jail by a Christian who wanted to make sure she had water and food.
As you read this, Venezuela is not as it was during our visit. But today and tomorrow I will pray for Christians in this creative mix of Latin Americans. They too want a place of freedom where they can live and raise their children and be proud of the country of their birth or choice.
Days after I left, the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, was hustled from his office into a black SUV and driven to jail. Could this be the first domino to fall?