Diario en ruinas (1998-2017). Ana Teresa Torres. Caracas: Editorial Alfa, 2018. 383 pages.
In Diario en ruinas (1998-2017) [Diary in ruins (1998-2017)], Ana Teresa Torres recounts the vicissitudes of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, tracking its imprints upon her personal life. This book captures the unusual times that transformed both the novelist’s country and her life. Through the diarist’s voice, which blends historical and personal perspectives, the reader is able to imagine how citizens suffered progressive spiritual and material disruption in an oil-producing country that has been burdened over the past few years by blackouts, scarcity of foods and medications, and hyperinflation. This may not seem new to many readers, for whom the news from Venezuela dominates the media from time to time, only to be forgotten and leave a dark cloud in the air. Torres, the recipient of numerous international awards, presents us with the diary of a narrator who fought against the flow of history in an attempt at remaining clearheaded when it wasn’t easy to do so, amidst the passions that divided the country into hotly-contested factions. One of the characteristics of this era is the rapid and continuous altering of facts that the official story distorted and writers themselves didn’t have time to capture in detail, as Torres herself admits. As a result, individuals were threatened at their most vulnerable point: that of historical memory, the cornerstone of their identity. Torres recalls that in 1998 very few people warned that Venezuela was moving closer to a regime with a totalitarian orientation. But that didn’t happen overnight. For that reason, in 2014 Torres decided to begin writing a diary that would recount, beginning in 1998—the year that Hugo Chávez won the Venezuelan presidency—the transition from a gray zone to an increasingly darker one with no exit in sight. Torres does not seduce the reader with historical utopias or miracles, at times when the confusion in Venezuela—and not only in Venezuela—provokes populist or religious fanaticism. That in itself is one of the many triumphs of this diary: it gives us a direct and unembellished view of reality.
In principle, this attitude does not contradict the fact that Torres is a writer who has been committed throughout these years to saving democracy, publishing articles or signing political declarations, some of which are compiled in this book. However, as the diary progresses, one observes that it is not always easy to maintain the writer’s critically autonomous voice in the face of changing political circumstances and interests. For example, Torres expressed her rejection of the failed coup d’état against Chávez led by minority sectors of the opposition in 2002. Torres thereby reaffirmed her commitment to the opposition’s democratic sectors, who have had both successes and errors. This attitude contrasts with intellectuals and college professors who supported Chavism in its early years, and who now condemn the regime of Maduro, whom Chávez designated as his successor, without the slightest hint of self-criticism for their support of Chavism in its first phase. Against these omissions, which tend to cloud understanding of Chavism as a historical process, this diary allows us to see events in perspective, recalling actions that may be unflattering for both Chavists and their opponents to remember. Torres is also a psychoanalyst, and she understands very well that silencing or forgetting the past can be typical in these regimes, as this allows history to be manipulated. This twin perspective, that of writer and of psychoanalyst, may influence the book’s measured tone, in an era characterized by the intense polarization that Chávez’s discourse promoted. Without claiming to be objective, Torres seeks to be precise in her presentation of facts, letting the facts imply the emotional atmosphere. One of the first changes that she documents in 1999 is Chávez’s direct condemnation of the recent democratic past. For Torres, democracy had had its shortcomings, but now this past was attacked as a dark age, and all who thought differently about it were stigmatized or insulted. Some witnesses dismissed this speech at the time as anecdotal or populist elation with no greater importance. Then the violence of this discourse led to violent actions. The government promoted the formation of support groups, known as Bolivarian Circles and later as “collectives.” At first they weren’t violent groups, but soon they were seen attacking or intimidating the opposition’s protests, as well as intimidating opposition media, even assaulting some opposing journalists. Many factors contributed to the majority of countries’ remaining silent at Venezuela’s human rights violations. One of these is the rise in oil prices during the years when Chávez was in power. The use of oil diplomacy won many international supporters, until the decline in oil prices after Chávez’s death changed that situation.
With increasing emigration from Venezuela, including that of her own children and friends, as well as the death of close friends, Torres’s sense of rootlessness deepens, and she doesn’t feel comfortable within her country or outside of it. Torres does not hide her distress, but she fights to maintain clarity. She recalls, therefore, her brief response to a survey, ¿En qué país vivmos? [What country do we live in?], published on January 22, 2017 in Siete días [Seven days], from the newspaper El Nacional. The Chavist regime’s survival, she explains, is due to its combination of certain structures of democratic regimes, such as making a show of periodically convoking elections and maintaining the separation of powers, with the violation of human rights, such as persecuting and torturing one’s opponents. This hybrid nature has allowed the regime to be tolerated outside its borders and not be condemned as a dictatorship. For many years this confusion around Chavism persisted, but Torres adds, “The opposition leadership has contributed greatly to this confusion because very few voices have become engaged in characterizing the regime.” Torres, who tends to recognize the democratic opposition’s successes, does not hide her critiques of its leadership’s disunity.
Her diary allows for diverse readings. If we consider what would happen later, historical events seem to prove her right. Most Western democracies did not recognize the 2018 presidential elections, in which Maduro proclaimed himself the winner, because they considered them to be fraudulent. The opposition’s reports of human rights violations were heard. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, after visiting Venezuela, issued a report that held the Chávez regime responsible for the nation’s collapse and for state violence, including torture and extrajudicial executions, along with social and economic deterioration that had pushed four million people into exile by the middle of 2019. The participation of the Venezuelan opposition’s political parties in this process is another story. Time has also passed, and Torres is no longer the same age that she was nearly twenty years ago when she actively participated with political organizations in protest marches, a situation that has become more dangerous in recent years, particularly for a woman who is no longer young. Time passes, but this book was written in another time, one that will remain firm in this diary against history’s trends.
University of Oklahoma
Translated by Karen Wooley Martin
Victor Carreno received his Ph.D. in Spanish from Columbia University (2004). From 2004-2018 he worked at the Universidad del Zulia, Venezuela. Since 2018 he has worked as a Spanish Lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics at the University of Oklahoma. His areas of research include the narrative of the Venezuelan diaspora in the 21st century and border crossings and migration in Latin American film and visual art. His book La voz del resentimiento: Lenguaje y violencia en Miguel de Unamuno was awarded the Monte Ávila Editores prize in 2006 in Venezuela. He published a selection of his translations in the book Poetas románticos ingleses (2009). His novel Cuaderno de Manhattan was awarded the Fundavag prize in 2014 in Venezuela.