The litmus test

“If he can make getting a cédula easier, then I will consider supporting him.”

I remember thinking and saying this back in 1999, when Hugo Chávez was first elected.

The experience of my previous two cédulas, Venezuela’s indispensable ID cards, had been traumatic for me. I am ashamed to admit that both of my trips to the DIEX involved bribes, cutting in line, and influence peddling. The degrading experience left me with a lifelong distaste for immigration bureaucrats everywhere.

As all of you probably know, getting your ID card required confronting the beast that is Venezuelan inefficiency and corruption at its absolute worst, and realizing that the beast always wins. So simplifying the process became a kind of litmus test for me.

Way back when there was still a chance that he was some kind of third-way Lula and not a retrograde communist, I naively pledged that, if Chávez could somehow, some way, make it easier for me to obtain my ID,  I would seriously consider being a supporter.

A few weeks ago, I got the chance to try it for the first time.

My last cédula expired in 2007, and I decided in this trip that I had to get a new one. My relatives quickly informed me that this procedure was now a piece of cake, thanks to Misión Identidad.

They told me we had to go to an Operativo, a mobile, quasi-permanent ID-issuing operation. The only one people knew about was deep in the heart of San Francisco Municipality, past the Monument to the Crashed Car.

We drove for about an hour, following minute instructions someone had given us, hush-hush. Turn right at the Hardware Store, turn left at the Mormon church, and you’ll be there, we were told. I had no idea Maracaibo, my home town, was so big.

The Operativo is held at a public school, in a building that looks like it was abandoned but that I’m pretty sure is still operational. Curiously, one of the buildings in the complex has both air conditioning and a caved-in roof. I didn’t see any students, but I knew better than to ask what the place actually was. Thankfully, the waiting area was a covered gymnasium so the vaunted “beloved sun” was not an issue.

I waited in line for ten minutes, with thirty people ahead of me. Pretty soon, we were all ushered into a small air-conditioned room. The smell of Lavan-San permeated the air. Six people with laptops were seated at a table at the end of the room, and they told us to form six lines.

After about three minutes, I gave the lady a color photocopy of my old cédula. She asked me for my phone number. She typed it in, then asked me to pose for a picture and to provide the capta-huella with my fingerprint. Yes, I was a capta-huella virgin until that day.

I was then told to go to the table at the other end of the room. After three minutes, give or take, my name was called and I was asked to sign a piece of paper. I was told to wait outside, in the covered gym, until my card was ready.

Five minutes later, the guy comes out and my name is called. I am handed what is essentially a color printout on a beige piece of paper, with my name, picture, signature, and fingerprint. The piece of paper had been cut with a paper cutter, and plastified using regular old plastic. The only thing making it look semi-official was the barely-there seal of the Bolivarian Republic in the middle.

That was it. That was my cédula. The whole process took fifteen minutes. Hugo Chávez had passed my litmus test.

Teodoro Petkoff has famously argued that Misión Identidad is, quite possibly, the government’s most successful social program. He says that the process of being illegal and not having an ID card in a country obsessed with the darn thing was degrading for thousands of Venezuelans and millions of hard-working immigrants. It forced many of us to live in the shadows and forsake our time, money, and principles in order to formalize our existence.

Now, it’s quite simple. You can get a cédula very quickly. In fact, you can get many cédulas very quickly. My relatives, after all, decided to come with me to get new ones for themselves, in case their old ones got lost. My brother-in-law has five.

Sure, the government has made the process simple and accessible largely by debasing the identity the cédula is meant to vouch for.

There are absolutely no privacy safeguards involved. The technology of modern ID cards has bypassed them completely, making the final product cartoonishly easy to fake. Since the government didn’t have my fingerprint on record, the only way they could verify that I was in fact who I claimed to be was the photocopy of my previous cédula, the 14-year old picture on the paper that sort of looked like me being the only proof that I was, in fact, who I claimed I was.

Chavismo has made getting a cédula simple and easy by making the cédulas themselves a joke. Our identities mean nothing, and our privacy is meaningless.

Sure, Chávez sort of passed my litmus test. But this is far from what I had in mind.

40 thoughts on “The litmus test

  1. I must warn you, Juan, that Misión Identidad’s Cedulas take some time to actually enter the National Registry Database of the Ministry of the Interior. If you are a new cedulado, or if you have changed your data (say, a name correction or a simple marital status amendment) you still have to go through the old process, or wait for a bout six months for your new data to get to the Ministerio del Poder Popular del Interior y Justicia (where you will get your cedula with harder materials, incidentally).

    So, as it goes, I’m [marital status omitted to protect the innocent] according to the Municipalidad de Chacao, the Ministerio de Finanzas, the Mision Identidad, but not the Interior Ministry.


    • I noticed that, so that’s why in Venezuela I’m single. No data change. Just don’t tell Katy…


        • I must say, however, that getting my licencia -I refused to drive until three years ago- was a very speedy process. And so was the renewal of my passport.

          And these are fully functional and seemingly secure documents, mind you.


  2. I got my kid’s cedulas in similar fashion. …Al lado de un mercado libre en Chacao…one and …dentro del PArque del Este….other. THe location and timing of each operativo something of a state secret.

    After everyone gets use to the new mamarracha cedula, and the operativo crews are going all aroung the country, in secretive deployments, who is to validate there are no many “parallel” operations going on cedulando a quien quieran, cuantas veces quieran, etc.

    I have said it before, all the identity database, the nacionalizados, and the growth of the voter franchise, go hand in hand.

    To some this is a valid social service that allowed a massive backlog of indocumentados to catch up, to me is a planned manipulationof the most sensible data in the nation to help advance the regime’s objectives.

    Por sus hechos los conocereis:

    If this is not the case, why go to such meassures, and break the Electoral laws and not open the voter franchise to a clear cut auditoria? – ask who benefits form this? and you will have motive and means to cover up this pivotal control. Here lays a key issue for the lack of fair elections in Venezuela.

    BTW spent last night watching an excelent documental in CBC. A must see for everyone who is still pasando agachado with the hopes that chavismo will not mess with them.


  3. Bah. I got my passport in Bogotá in less than an hour. The cedula took almost a year though, but comparing the colombian cedula with the venezuelan one (in regard to materials and craftsmanship) is like comparing a visa gold with a busyness card from a used car salesman.

    By the way, why do you bother obscuring your data when you’re in Maisanta?

    And a funny thing. I’ve had this theory that just about everything with any relevance that relates to Chavez has the number 84 on it in one form or another (as in Orwell’s “1984”). I just noticed your cedula has an 84 in it…


    • Paranoia, I guess. But please explain your “84” theory some more (and, yes, my cedula has a 84 in it).


      • There’s no “theory”, it’s just the result of numerical paranoia. The number 84 simply seems to be more common in certain places that other numbers. For instance, I have five forms of identification (venezuelan cedula and passport, colombian ced and passport, and spanish passport). Of those, 4 contain an 84, and 1 has an 83.

        The number 1984 is important to me for personal reasons, so I tend to notice it more that I should. But, yes, it is astounding the number of times I’ve managed to catch it in things related either to my personal life or to Chavez. Not just “84”, but “984” and “1984” as well and the adjacent numbers (83 and 85) and reverse numbers (48, 489). (e.g., Arias Cardenas cedula is 2554283, PSUV’s percentage in 2000 was 48.11% of the votes, the null votes in that election were 348698).

        Yes, I know is just a coincidence. I know that if you look hard enough, you can find any 2-digit number anywhere, specially with as much room for permutations as I allow here. But, still, it’s quite odd and unsettling that everywhere I look I can see an 84 in one form or another.

        (Creepy music swells)
        Just look around and keep your eyes open. You’ll find the 84s too. They’re like the weeping angels from Doctor Who.

        Don’t blink. Don’t even blink…


  4. Juan, were you able to travel within Venezuela with an expired cedula? I couldn’t do that the last time I was there, and they wouldn’t even accept the passport as valid ID at the airport!

    And don’t even get me started on getting a new driver’s license and medical ID…How are you driving around? Three years ago they caught me in an “operativo” with an expired license and no Medical ID while I was just there vacationing for the Holidays.


  5. “the only way they could verify that I was in fact who I claimed to be was the photocopy of my previous cédula, the 14-year old picture on the paper that sort of looked like me being the only proof that I was, in fact, who I claimed I was.”…

    Come on Juan! They just looked at you and at the 14 year old kid in the picture and concluded that you must be the only possible Tintin maracucho there is around!


  6. Damn Juan… Pana termina de mudarte para allá!

    Or at least make these trips a more regular thing. Maybe you can get the CIA to sponsor them. (Oh yeah, I’m bringing those back)


  7. Well, the crappy print out cedula from the operativos may well become a chavista relic soon, if the Cubans, together with Gemalto, have their crack at new e-cedulas. Some 6 million were ordered at a cost of $40,500,000, however, no one, nowhere, is willing to spill the beans on that little project, or on whether the costing is reflective of market standards (Bundesdruckerei refused to comment). I’ll keep digging though…

    Re the cedula Juan, great write up BTW, this is part of what FT calls a “a well oiled registration drives”, so “well oiled” in fact that as you say, anyone with a 30 year old fotocopia can get a new cedula. And then some still say that elections are free and fair in Venezuela. Right…


    • “no one, nowhere, is willing to spill the beans on that little project”

      Quico also says groups of people can’t keep secrets in Venezuela…


  8. A couple of years ago I renewed my cédula in Valencia, but didn’t have the benefit of any operativo. By the way, operativos are not a chavista invention. They’ve been around forever, another vice of that evil cuarta… Anyway, here is my experience, step by step:

    1. Madrugonazo: There is seldom a Venezuelan bureaucratic process without having to be there at ungodly hours of the early morning. It’s a patriotic duty.

    2. Espontáneo: There is often someone in the line who’s been there even earlier and who sets upon himself the task of organizing the line. An almost para-official figure. Most of the time the espontáneo does a surprisingly good job, often better than the official organization, as we shall see soon.

    3. Despelote (mess): After a couple of hours of quiet, and confident, line forming (including the freedom to step out of the line to grab an empanada), thanks to the esponáneo’s effort, the real official steps out and starts organizing the already organized line. She tells us to step back and not crowd toward the door, where she’s standing. The problem is that the mid-morning traffic makes it impossible to hear her instructions. After a tacit agreement to crowd mid-way (not too far, not too close), we hear a set of instructions, which we obey, discarding the espontáneo’s noble efforts. After a few minutes, another set of instructions. And another. It seemed as though they were renewing cédulas for the very first time in Venezuela’s democratic history and this happened to be a pilot center. In other words: It seemed as though they didn´t have a clue.

    4. Finally inside!: The office is full of people, but not too full. What it is full of is political and ideological propaganda, including posters showing, among other things, G.W. Bush as a donkey. Not in entirely good taste, especially in an official building.

    5. Got it!! I finally get my cédula in approximately the same way as described by Juan, except that the wait seemed much longer than Juan’s description. I remember it was about 11:30am, so not too bad, renewing my cédula before lunch time.

    Conclusions: Not as bad as I thought, but much less organized than it should be. And the political propaganda inside was an unpleasant feature. Compare this with changing my DNI here in Spain (to reflect a change of address): Step one is to go to the website, chose your favorite center (you can do it nationwide). Step two: Chose date and time (I chose 1:00pm so as not to worry about a madrugonazo or to mess up my morning). Step three: Go there and in less than 20min I got my new DNI, free.


  9. The last time I renewed mine, I did it the old fashioned way.

    1) Stood in line for about 4 hours

    2) Came back 6 months later to see if it was ready, it wasn’t. So I got my “comprobante” laminated in plastic.

    3) Happened to be shopping in Plaza las Amercias one day (where I got my cedula renewed), about 4 months after step 2, still not ready.

    4) Went downstairs, bought 3 cachitos and 3 con leche grandes, went to the back to office, presented the cachitos and coffee. Cedula appeared!


  10. He passed your litmus test – but it was the wrong litmus test. Kind of like, say, demanding easier credit, yet when that credit comes with a zillion opportunities for corruption, it just ends up slowly decaying the state from within. Be careful what you wish for, right?

    Your marital status on the cedula puts an interesting new twist on the term “geographical bachelor.”

    By the way, I want to see a picture of the Monument al Carro Chocado! Anyone?


      • Great find, Tejano! Thanks, though I can see from what’s online that to really satisfy my curiosity it might take a kind reader. (Not that big a deal, really.)

        A Plymouth Ranchero? That’s classic!


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