Abundance Guilt by Lisbeth Coiman
Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, March 21st, 2017
"My 80-year-old father lines up to buy his ration of food..."
Along the wide corridors of the wholesale store, I look for the basic ingredient of my favorite dish, Pabellón Criollo. Flank steak is a piece of lean meat that once cooked can be shredded like strands of yarn. The refrigerators burst with a large variety of large meat cuts. My shopping cart bumps into others. The shoppers mutter apologies; try samples of hot tamales, Italian sausage, and Indian curry. Hips of fresh fruits and vegetables seem to smile from across the vast space. It’s almost repugnant to see so much food.
Twice a week, in Venezuela, my 80-year-old father lines up to buy his ration of food: chicken and split rice. When he arrives, the line is already a couple of miles long. But with his cane, his white hair, and his insecure steps, he has earned the privilege to go to the front of the crowd. He hasn’t earned the right of safety, though. When hours later, the angry mob decides to break in and take the food, they stampede over my father. Somebody rescues him, but not his glasses. He escapes with just a few bruises.
I set up two large pressure pots on my stove, one for the meat and one for the black beans. In the meat pot, I throw in a whole onion, garlic, a red bell pepper, a few whole peppercorn, whole allspice, and three cloves. In the bean pot go two pounds of black beans, an onion cut in quarters, and a green bell pepper. I close the lids, and wait for the whistles to announce that I should reduce the heat, and put up with the noise for the next half hour, the only inconvenience in the preparation of food in my house in the USA. I sit down with my coffee and text my sister back home. “I’m not feeling well,” I said, embarrassed to announce that I’m cooking Pabellón.
My brother sends my mother food via cargo from Miami, which yields as long as she can stretch it, but that’s not enough. I have sent money on occasions, but it doesn’t make much difference either because the problem is not only lack of money. Simply put, there is no food to buy. Fortunately, there are mangoes, but even the mango trees are suffering from over harvesting. There is nothing else to eat. There are already reports of people losing weight for lack of food.
While the pots whistle, I prepare the sofrito for the beans. In Venezuela, I would have blended onion, green bell pepper, garlic, and parsley. But I feel like chopping is better today. I want to take time, reflect a bit on how fortunate I am, meditate almost on the fact that despite my difficulties as an immigrant in the USA, I am fortunate, safe, well fed. In a frying pan, I cook chopped ham. Once it’s golden, I remove it from the pan, and add corn oil, and the vegetables. When the onion is translucent, I add salt and pepper, a dash of cumin, and place the mixture in the bean pot, along with the ham. I let it simmer for another 20 minutes at medium heat. I rub my neck, tired from bending over the kitchen counter.
It wasn’t always that way in Venezuela, a country of abundance: luscious landscape, year round supply of exotic fruits and vegetables, fertile soil, rich in minerals that make the country one of the largest reservoirs of oil in the world. Yet, Venezuela is hungry today.
Hugo Chavez won the election by a landslide, with 80% of the popular vote, in 1999, two years after I left Venezuela. I never liked the man because I have a natural distrust for the military, even more so, for an army man who attempted a coup d’Etat to a sitting president (not that I particularly liked that president either), and who had an incendiary discourse to begin with. After the attempted coup, the media flocked to Chavez’ cell and made him a celebrity, for his supposed courage. From the jail, he became a charismatic and demagogic political figure. He promised to put the corrupt politicians before the firing squad in the Olympic stadium. The crowds roared. I was happy I had taken my children out of the country by then.
While the beans become a soup, I deal with the meat: let it cool, and then painstakingly separate each strand by pulling with the tip of my fingers. In a large pot, I throw in onion and garlic. When the onion is translucent, I add chopped red bell pepper and sweet banana peppers. A minute later, in go the chopped tomatoes, two spoonful of ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce. I let this vegetable mixture boil and then simmer for 20 minutes, after which I season with salt, pepper, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Then I add the shredded meat, and a cup of the stock.
In 2002, after serious confrontation for his oil program for Cuba, Chavez went against the oil company that has fed the country well for generations. Petróleos de Venezuela, PDVSA, had been the country’s first employer and main checking account since it was nationalized in the 70s. Chavez dismantled the entire company, and 50,000 oil workers went abroad and today serve powerful oil companies in the US, Belgium, UK, France, Russia, and China. Those who remain drive taxi cabs on the streets of Venezuela’s major cities. By that time, the government turned regime established a fierce price control policy, creating a great deal of friction with the manufacturing industry, food producers, and retailers.
It’s hot and humid in my kitchen, where it smells like my tropical childhood: freshly squeezed orange juice, bread pudding in the oven, coffee brewing, and parchita (passion fruit). I call my husband to ask him to bring plantain from the ethnic store near the refinery where he works. I check both the meat and the beans for seasoning.
In 2005, Chavez implemented the expropriation of unproductive farms, with the idea of redistributing to increase food production and fight rural poverty. In reality, the expropriation law became a political weapon to confiscate land from his opponents and gain absolute control of the heartland. The seized property was fenced with giant posters that showed a romantic idea of the future productive land. Years later, a reporter trespassed those fences with a video camera to show the world the idle land overgrown with weeds. The expropriated landowners left the country, if they could, or went into the resistance, if they couldn’t.
When the beans are ready, I remove them from the stove, where I place a smaller pot with water for the rice. I add salt and corn oil and let the water boil. Then I add two cups of par boiled rice, see it boil, then immediately reduce the heat and cover. Something pulls from inside my stomach, it feels like hunger, and I tell myself I have to wait until the meal is ready. I check the news in my phone, news about another demagogue, one with funny hair. I cringe.
What was born out of the Cuban model of land redistributions was used against political opponents to confiscate their property, houses, or factories, even merchandise from retailers. Industries that wanted to stay on top of their game played low and seemed complacent with the regime. It took longer to get to Empresas Polar. This food producing company started as a brewery in Caracas in 1941 and became the country’s second employer behind PDVSA. The conglomerate produces beer, malt, soft drinks, juices, corn flour (our staple), rice, pastas, margarines, corn oil, cheese spreads, jellies, tuna fish, and frozen sea food.
When the rice is ready, I turn off the stove, wash all the utensils, wipe the kitchen, and sweep the floor. Then turn off the kitchen lights and go to my upstairs office to write. I love the comfort and safety I enjoy, the luxury of having space to live and work.
Withholding payment from creditors became another political strategy, and since the country produces oil but not enough food for its people, it also must import all raw materials and pay in dollars, a currency heavily controlled by the state. Without payment, the food supply started to dwindle. The more regulated the product, the more scarce it was: milk, meat, chicken, and toilet paper, sanitary napkins, diapers, condoms, and medicine in general. Meanwhile, Empresas Polar has been quietly feeding the country, if only with bare essentials. But in 2016, the growing tension between the dictator and the food company reached the breaking point. Unable to pay for imported raw material in the currency-controlled country, Polar confronted the government, which in turned accused the food producer of conspiring with the empire (USA) and called in the military to confiscate the factories. No more food.
When he died, Chavez named a successor, as if he were a king. At least Chavez was intelligent. Nicolas Maduro is inept beyond reason, and with ineptitude and ignorance comes cruelty. He laughs on live TV at the images presented to him by journalists of people scavenging garbage bins for leftover food. There is no productivity left in a country that has to line up for hours a day, several days a week, for a ration of food. There is no dignity left either.
While I sip a shot of Venezuelan rum, I remember last Christmas when a group of Venezuelans invited my husband and me to dinner. We shared the table with oil engineers from our country, their wives, and children, and ate the delicate dishes that make our Christmas: Hallacas, pan de jamón, pernil, and ensalada de gallina, the abundance with which we all grew up. I think I caught the flu that night because I haven’t been feeling well since.
Venezuela’s largest bill is the 100 Bolivares, today worth 0.02 cents of a dollar. Once deemed useless, the bill should have been replaced immediately. Five days before Christmas, Nicolas Maduro ordered the recall of the bill, but didn’t replace it. People burnt the useless money on the streets. No food and no money. In the course of 18 years, the country went from the first economy of the subcontinent, to a level of poverty known only to Haiti.
I dress up the table, serve the Pabellón Criollo: carne mechada, black beans, white rice, and fried plantain. I set up fork and knife, and a simple white napkin. In front of me, a glass of clear, clean water, and a shot of rum, Santa Teresa, Anniversary version.
But I can’t eat. Guilt of abundance shuts down my stomach, and I weep.
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Header image courtesy of Sophie Harris-Taylor. To view her Photographer Feature, go here.
Lisbeth Coiman is a bilingual writer standing (unbalanced) on a blurred line between fiction and memoir. She has wandered the immigration path from Venezuela to Canada, to the US, and now lives between the East Bay and Los Angeles because she lost her way back home. She has been a cleaning lady, a translator, a teacher, a project manager, and always a mother of two wonderful men. Her work has been published in Hip Mama, Literary Kitchen, and Yayla Magazine. In 2015, she performed in the Listen To Your Mother Show, Orange County. Her upcoming memoir, The Shattered Mirror, celebrates friendship among women and draws attention on issues such as child abuse, immigration, and mental illness.