My friend Maria comes from a country not at war, yet it produces more refugees than Syria. Andrés Oppenheimer, Pulitzer Prize Winner, said that the current government ‘produced more migrants and refugees than the Taliban regime’.
Maria’s land has no running water, electricity so little that it is of no use as fridges stand empty, molding, and lives stand withered, in the dark.
Ninety-three percent of the population cannot afford simple food purchases and, anyhow, there is little to buy. One million children have missed school because of hunger; hospitals lack basics such as gloves, masks, medicines, antibiotics, oxygen. Families of those hospitalized bring water – both for consumption and for personal hygiene – from home. Nothing speaks of misery more than jerrycans of water.
My friend’s uncle died in hospital. His body and belongings were looted. Sometimes bodies disappear too.
Life, where Maria comes from, is made of unemployment, inconsistent food, lack of gasoline, even if the country’s oil resources are the largest in the world.
A mixture of oligarchy, corruption, bad politics, hyperinflation (5.000%), drop in the price of crude oil back in 2014, international sanctions have brought this land of kindness and revolution on its knees.
Sanctions imposed by the US, EU and UK, in specific, damaged society to its roots. Why should children, working-class people, Campesinos, pensioners pay the ultimate price with indigence for motivations such as lack of international cooperation on terrorism, erosion of human rights, persecution of political opponents, repression of civil society, curtailing press freedoms, arbitrary arrests when trade and economic sanctions never aim high, above ordinary people to target the intelligentsia?
We know the answer: it comes from another moment in history and part of the world. When Madeleine Albright, first female Secretary of State in US history was asked if the death of allegedly 500.000 Iraqi children (‘more than Hiroshima’ said the interviewer, Lesley Stahl) as a result of sanctions placed on the Middle Eastern country after the First Gulf War, was a price worth it, Albright replied: “a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it”. ‘We’, those in power, get to decide of the fate of millions. How could anyone ask if the death of anyone is ‘worth it’ goes beyond human understanding.
People are expendable. Maria’s compatriots know it. So do Iraqi parents.
My friend has that sing-song people from Latin America oftentimes emit. I am used to a different Spanish which, compared to hers, sounds like an AK-47 on steroids.
I wish my friend told me more about the recent history of her homeland, of the late revolutionary – and questionable – President of the Republic.
I never told her, but when he died, I felt my usual sadness kicking in because it is undeniable, I have an interest in anyone unconventional.
And unconventional he was.
According to many in South America, he embodied social redemption. He was friends with Cuba and Iran, called George W. Bush ‘the devil’, Obama ‘a clown’, told Hilary Clinton to resign from politics.
He deeply, truly, believed in the peace process between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the Central government because – and this is what always gets me – a Latin American nation cannot be internally divided. Unity was seen as the antidote to imperialism. We have seen, cosmically, what the ‘divide et impera’ policy around the world has produced.
He exhumed the body of his hero, the South American revolutionary Simon Bolívar, to prove he died poisoned and not of tuberculosis.
He knew no limits and was very possibilistic, assessing there could be life on Mars, but it likely had been killed off by the arrival of capitalism.
He banned Coke Zero from the nation – labeled as ‘unhealthy’ – and of breast implants said they were monstrous, the ultimate degeneration; called Halloween ‘imperialistic terror’ as America has a tradition of ‘putting fear into other nations’. He deemed golf a burgeois sport with lazy players (because of carts) and had two, objectively beautiful, golf courses shut down because they were an insult to those living in slums.
He cared about children and to guarantee that they all woke up with the sun to go to school, he moved the time zone half an hour behind (causing havoc nationwide as he informed the population almost one day to another).
He could be outrageously verbose (one of his speeches lasted nine hours) and he once sent a truck of heating oil to ‘impoverished Americans’ in New York’s south side Bronx, marketing himself as a savior.
No, my friend Maria never told me what it feels like to live in a country where only 10% of the population make 500 USD per month and the poorest 10% barely reach 8 USD. Like a novel by Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the story of her family is always filled with characters and the fine line between those dead or alive is often times blurry. Just like that line defining happiness and melancholy.
When we first met, she told me: ‘My story is not sad. On the contrary, I am very lucky, I learned to work as a child and that is why I have been able to support my children without anyone’s help. I am a single mother of three and we are happy, despite the difficulties. I have a small cafe where I work. I built it with my own hands, like anything else I do and ever did. During the pandemic it was difficult, I re-opened as soon as we were allowed to. I could not be without income. I like to cook for people: I enjoy looking at their faces when they eat something that I prepare with love.’
Maria suffers from Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis. ‘I do not know which day will be difficult because my illness does not warn me… However, when my body is in good shape, I get the most out of the day and I enjoy a lot with my children, especially my youngest daughter who is 7. Still, I am afraid dementia will grab me early. I would love to move close to you and with old typewriters, close to the sea or in a meadow, write stories, endless stories. I have so many to tell… I would like you to be the depository of my life before I forget it.’
This happened just over two years ago. At the time I was in another continent, juggling through my own life and the pandemic. One day, out of the blue, I received a message from my friend who was informing me she had fallen in love with someone, through social media. ‘I fell in love with Mr. Nielsen. We became close friends and it was not difficult to feel something for him. I am now moving to Scandinavia to marry him and taking my daughter along. Will you be my maid of honor?’
One in four engaged couples meet online, but marriages seem to be doomed to failure with a 16% higher chances of divorce with the first ten years.
I put aside unhappy and unsolicited thoughts and congratulated my friend. I am always tender in front of love stories.
Two years have passed. I did not make it to Scandinavia as my friend had to get married in a hurry for a problem relating to her visa.
Mr. Nielsen is being described as a ‘very nice man’. On social media I see photos of the newly established family taking the weekend off and cycling in the countryside or hopping through old squares and onto ferryboats. I see them in bars and attending music festivals. They celebrate solcistes, advent and combined holidays of two different universes.
I ask myself if Maria still uses an online translator to communicate with Mr. Nielsen. Even when they argue. Maria speaks only that sing-a-song melodic form of Spanish.
Her naturalization process still requires time, but Maria’s daughter has already started school. She is in 4th grade and dreams of eventually studying cinematography. ‘This is the right place. She could have never pursued her dreams back home. Mr. Nielsen is very supportive’ says Maria whose other two boys are young men trying their luck in Argentina through grants and hard university work.
I know once a month Maria meets other women with disparate backgrounds and, while Maria comes from a country whose capital has been named ‘the most dangerous of the world’, I am sure each woman wears a skin with different and compelling stories. Every now and then I receive one of their videos: I feel that fine line between melancholy and happiness stepping in, even though it is not Marquez or Allende telling their story.
Last month Maria shared a couple of photos of her wearing glasses, open books on desks, a board and the backs of other women. ‘I made it to the language school for foreigners’ she wrote. ‘You do not have to ask me if I am happy’.
I never once reminded her of the old type writers and writing our stories en plein air.
(names have been changed to guarantee privacy / first published on Medium)