Venezuela. Argenis with children from his neighbourhood

Betting on your life in Venezuela

"Reality is a calling." How can these words not endure? Particularly when the country is suffering the harshest of crises, making daily life extreme. The testimony of Alejandro Marius from the January issue of Tracce.
Davide Perillo

The Angelus and a shower. These are the first two things he does in the morning, and neither is taken for granted. The first depends on you, on the awareness you have. And for the second one, it's not even enough to turn on the tap. In Venezuela, water is one of the many things that come and go, and often lacks. "But yes, that's usually how the day starts. You say thank you for being alive and you find yourself immersed in problems. To have water on a regular basis, we had to dig a well 80 meters below our apartment block…”

Alejandro Marius is 50 years-old, and is married to Alexandra. They have four daughters and live in Caracas. His story has already been recounted in Tracce: in 2009 he left his job as manager of a multinational to dedicate himself to social enterprises and founded Trabajo y Persona, a non-profit organization that develops training projects to promote the value of work and the dignity of the person in Venezuela. All this happened before the country was hit by the harshest crisis, which for years now, since the time of Chávez, has been making daily life a rosary of problems and hardships.

Alejandro (on the right) with friends from his Fraternity

Inflation has risen drastically: 2700% per year. More and more wads of banknotes are needed to buy what you need, which is often not available, whilst official salaries are around 5-10 dollars. There is a lack of light, petrol, medicine. The level of crime is very high. According to a research done by the Catholic University, 94% of Venezuelans live in poverty, 76% go hungry. Many cannot make it and run away. Since 2008 Venezuela has registered five and a half million refugees, almost 20% of the population. Half of them are under 30 and so the future of the country is leaving. When you read such figures, or see photos, the usual reaction is: "Venezuela? Terrible, of course, who knows how they will manage...", then you move on. But what about those who love there, within the drama? What does it really mean to live like this?

We followed Alejandro step by step, letting him tell us about one of his days. Twenty-four ordinary hours, for the bitter life of this country, but so full of problems that it seems unreal. Instead, it is reality that pushes, urges. Or rather, it calls. Alejandro often uses the word "vocation" as he tells his story. Sometimes he does it without realizing it, it comes naturally to him. And he does it by talking about the things that happen or that he does, as if they have within them Someone who calls you through them, beyond your plans. In the pages that the movement of CL has been working on recently for School of Community, Fr. Giussani says that "passion for the love of Christ" generates "a new content of your self-awareness, in which, instead of the I, there is a You" as the "principle of action." Something else begins to transpire in how you live. But that's where you have to look to see it: in facts, in life, in your everyday work.

For Alejandro, this usually starts at home. "Work isn't a given either, in a country where everything lacks," he says. For him, it's usually a succession of meetings, sometimes in person but more often via Zoom or on the phone, patiently dealing with power outages. "These are moments to share the situation, like the Trabajo y Persona staff meeting on Monday mornings. Or, like today, the meeting with the lawyer for a contract, the review of a project, or the budgeting of a project. And the meeting with the women who make chocolate in Merida, one of the small businesses that have been set up thanks to TyP." Yesterday he saw the French ambassador, for other ongoing projects: "We are committed to development, rather than emergency. We work to make the person grow, not just to assist them. It's not easy." The thing that helps him the most, even in this period of quarantine and distance, is precisely meeting people. "But the first test of the job is whether or not I wake up in the morning with the desire to face reality, whatever there is to do."

That's not always the case. During the months of lockdown, he noticed at one point that he was lacking something. "I was stumbling at the same things, not opening up to new projects. Sure, the lack of in-person meetings weighed me down. But the bottom line was that my ideas outweighed reality. I was tired, almost bored." What unlocked him was a phone call with Monica, a friend from Italy. "She told me: 'Look, it's happening here too, it's not just you. You are not alone.’ It helped. From that moment I started to move and meet people again."

His work is interrupted by a thousand WhatsApps. It has become the most useful means of communication here as Zoom isn’t well-known. And he gets a flurry of them about a work issue, the signing of a document for the bank... "But also from a friend who wants to talk to you because he has no more money, or a girl who asks you to help her with her CV." A series of provocations to understand "how to use time, what to prioritize."

In its twelve-year history, Trabajo y Persona has trained more than three thousand people, in different fields: chocolate producers and mechanics, hairdressers and musicians. "We've done it with our method, which is particular and more challenging: it's not just about teaching a trade, but supporting them in starting to do it, maybe in setting up their own business." It means striking a single blow to two very hot irons in the Venezuelan emergency: the economy and education. And it means offering a future to people, to those who stay and those who go, "because there are those who have started a business here, amidst a thousand efforts, but also many who have left and found a job abroad thanks to the training they have received." Amongst these is the entrepreneur who has just won an award in Paris, and the friend who now produces chocolate in Peru...

There are also those who are still here in the country, like Argenis, a close friend who lives in Merida. "He's 8-10 years older than me, he's a choirmaster. Due to the lockdown he was locked up for months in the complex where he lives." There, instead of giving up, he began to teach music to children who were no longer in school, around forty children in total. When Ale visited him months ago, he found a choir. "I started talking to one of the children - Andrés, who is 12 years-old. "Why are you here?" "Because music connects, creates connections." What does that mean?" "Now that I'm not in school, it helps me connect my brain to my hands. And I am beginning to understand the math my mom is teaching me at home better. And then, you know, there's no electricity here at night, you can't do anything. We have begun playing the flute with our neighbors, connecting with the building next door and with the other...”

During the day, the one nerve that Alejandro often feels pinched is that of his daughters. "They want to leave, all of them. Even the youngest, who is only 14. When she talks about what she wants to do after high school, she already plans to go to university abroad." What hurts him is not the prospect of separation or the unknown of seeing them move away. "A father always wants what's good for the destiny of his children, and their freedom is a mystery to be embraced. But it's that they just don't see a future in Venezuela. This hurts me, feeling the powerlessness of not being able to create better conditions for everyone." And what do you do with that powerlessness? "I offer it to Christ."

The nice thing about the lockdown, Alejandro says, is that you eat together more often. "Even though I don't talk much at the table, they talk, a lot. They talk about their lives, about what's going on. They talk about their boyfriend, university , politics, the LGBT movements... A flood of topics and discussions. Sometimes it even feels like too much. But if you stop for a moment to think, you realize that it's a spectacle to see how they play out their lives without problems, even in front of their parents." He is silent for a moment and adds: "Some time ago I read The Shadow of the Father, Jan Dobraczynski's novel about Saint Joseph. I would like to stand before them with the awareness he had. But my weakness makes me think more of Dante's Virgil: I accompany you as I can, but I stay one step behind. Paradise is for you."

When he can, before going back to work, he takes a look at the news. The social crisis, the complicated political debate after last month's elections. "Sometimes you see certain things or read numbers that are really scary. But I'm surprised, because I don't find that I am scared. And that is something that comes right from the movement, from reading Giussani and Carrón, and the Pope. You see things, even bad things, but you realize that they are signs: they serve to understand what your task is, not to back out. Reality is a vocational call."

Again, he talks about vocation. "See, sometimes I think about the privilege I have of being able to eat every day, while so many don't have the means to do so. And I often find myself thinking about how to help them, how to solve their problems. But I can't even meet my own need on my own."

He has a few physical ailments to keep at bay, too. "I always try to move, because it helps, but I don't have that much time. At best I am able to walk the dog in the garden of our apartment block. It is enclosed and has an electric fence, but you can breathe. You see the beauty of Avila, the mountain north of Caracas. At sunset you hear parrots flying over the building. I am reminded of Van Thuan, the Vietnamese bishop who was imprisoned, and I really feel privileged. There’s no comparison."

Another topic that is ever-present during his days is health. "Everyone in the family has had surgery this year, minus me: fractures, accidents... Even the dog had bronchitis. A lot of time is spent at checkups and finding medicine." These are things that are almost impossible today in Venezuela. Among his thousands of recent activities, Alejandro has helped some friends set up a network of foreign aid that brings medicines into the country for those who cannot afford them. But there is always greater need, particularly in a country where Covid has hit harder than elsewhere but the health system is full of loopholes and does unthinkable things that are taken for granted by Europeans.

Some time ago, one afternoon, he received a message: "It was a friend from another city who was due to give birth. But there was no water in the hospital there." He stopped working, made a round of phone calls, and made a bank transfer "to someone I don't even know, so that he could take her to a bigger city". And then more waiting, more praying. "The baby, thank God, was healthy. Then friends from his Fraternity Group refunded some of the cost." The following week, however, one of his daughters had scheduled tonsil surgery, "and I realized at that point that I didn’t have enough money.” So what happened? "I found what I needed... Christ has never left me alone with my problems. Why doubt? ‘Hago todo lo mio, pero al final me entrego,’ I do what I can, but in the end I trust. We put in two loaves and five fish, and He works miracles. The truth is that facts like these serve to make us more aware of how much we depend on the Mystery."

He describes his Fraternity group as " the place that helps me to live more intensely, to breathe." It is made up of friends; five are married and one is a priest. "We all have very different personalities, but what unites us is precisely the awareness of living life as a vocation in the light of the charism. With them I put myself out there one hundred percent: I make important decisions, I share everything. When I turned 50, my birthday gift was being able to celebrate with my family and with them."

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School of Community takes place on a Wednesday, "the most wonderful time to share with friends and to follow." This cannot be taken for granted either. "There are several groups via Zoom, for those who live in Caracas and have an internet connection. In other cities, where there is no internet connection, they use WhatsApp: you listen, record your message, send, wait... A friend who has to go up on his roof with an umbrella in hand to get phone signal. And the meeting of the diaconia takes place at a certain time because there is then a blackout in many cities.”

In the evening, after dinner, he spends time reading ("lately, Miguel Mañara and Dante. They help me a lot"), watching the news on TV, or the NBA games ("when I was a boy I played basketball, today I support the Miami Heat"). He also sometimes writes, prepares texts or works calmly on a project, "but for that I have to wait until they are all in bed." He, on the other hand, says that before falling asleep he often has a thought: "Whatever happens tomorrow, even if it's to die, I'm ready."