Ideas

Ideas | Antonio Matheus

How the Venezuelan dictatorship ruined cats for me

View inside a wholesale supermarkert looted during the massive blackout that has paralyzed Venezuela for six days, in Maracaibo, in the border state of Zulia on March 13, 2019. - More than 500 shops were plundered in the oil tanker Zulia state (northwest). Although Caracas and the states of Miranda and Vargas -- home to the country's international airport and main port -- had intermittent power, the western states of Barinas, Tachira and Zulia remained without electricity. (Photo by JUAN BARRETO / AFP)
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
View inside a wholesale supermarkert looted during the massive blackout that has paralyzed Venezuela for six days, in Maracaibo, in the border state of Zulia.

Maracaibo, Venezuela

IN THE BEGINNING of March, when the lights went out, I thought nothing of it. We’d been having power outages since at least 2014, so it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. Twenty hours in, though, it was clear that this was not just another outage.

Venezuela’s economic crisis had hit new lows, and we were dealing with a total blackout. The lights wouldn’t be coming back on.

Suddenly, I was scrambling for information. There was no Internet service, and even if you could find some on a smartphone, batteries were running low with no place to charge them.

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Not that my phone was a smartphone. Just a rinky dink old thing that had FM Radio. Of course, there was no station to be found except for Radio Nacional de Venezuela, the official station of the government. It was pretty astounding. All you could hear was government propagandists telling us we’d been attacked by the US — but that somehow everything was fine. That and long interludes of salsa music. It was like being in a tropical “1984,” with the dumbest version of Big Brother.

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I took a walk through the city on Day 3 of the blackout, and it was a sight to be seen. Everything was deserted, and all you could hear was the sound of portable power generators, like distant drums letting you know that trouble was around the corner.

Then there was the “getting food” part. You couldn’t refrigerate, so you had to buy and eat anything you could find — if you could find anything. I was a heroin addict for a couple of decades, and have been sober three years now (. . . hold for applause), so I had some experience skulking around.

When I got to a store I frequent, in search of some cheese, the owners told me to go around back in 15 minutes. As they furtively slipped me the goods, they insisted that I “hide the merch.” I thought those days were behind me, but there I was, looking both ways every 10 seconds, as I hustled down the street concealing a product that meant the world to me.

By Day 4, I needed a shower (we all did). I was lucky enough to have a water tank at home, but without electricity, I couldn’t pump it up, so I had to use a bucket. Next thing I knew, I was standing naked behind my house. I’m 38 years old and my body is, well, I wouldn’t say grotesque — let’s just call it calamitous. As big and bulbous as a sports mascot. So there I was, a naked sports mascot with a beach bucket, when it happened.

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I saw two cats between my house and my neighbors’, staring at me like Egyptian sphinxes. It was troubling. They didn’t look happy or shocked. They had no expression whatsoever, they just stared.

I want to apologize to every woman in the world who has been stared at like that by a man (or an animal). It was horrifying. Now I can’t look at any cat. They are gossipy little buggers, so I know the word has spread among them. I know that they know, and they know that I know that they know. I feel it when I go out into the streets and bump into them.

The Venezuelan dictatorship has ruined cats for me, and I don’t know where to go from here.

Antonio Matheus is a freelance journalist and writer in Venezuela.