A couple of days ago, as Juan Cristóbal Nagel was blogging about the incredible collapse of Venezuela that began in the late 1970’s, I sat down to watch it unfold thanks to the kindly pirate who uploaded Adiós, Miami to the Internets.
The 1984 movie depicts the downfall of a swinging parvenu typical of those times—masterfully played by Gustavo Rodriguez, a famous Venezuelan actor who died this year. The son of a Canario immigrant, his character Oswaldo F. Urbaneja dropped out of La Salle school, worked his way up through shady deals, married a lady from a well-off family, and devoted his life to a swirl of ill-conceived speculation and whisky-fueled carousing. Adelante a luchar milicianos.
In some ways Urbaneja is the ancestor of the modern bolibourgeois—but with a lot less power, and with a modicum of shame, since he actually fears the government’s laws. His upper-middle class bolivars go a long way, however: he can buy a horse on a whim at an auction, and at one point rents a Rolls Royce to impress dreamy bombshell Tatiana Capote. ‘Tá barato.
If you can look past the crappy filming standards, the hirsute sideburns, and some absurd “acting” (although Rodriguez’s was impeccable), this movie is definitely worth watching, if only to remind us of how well our parents’ generation lived. It was a Venezuela full of immigrants from Europe and Latin America, a cheerful place where, despite the budding crisis, there seemed to be plenty of business opportunities. Those Dodge Darts and LTDs that still clog our streets were brand new then.
There were some characters, however, that gave a foretaste of the Chavista oil boom, such as the wife who puts up with Urbaneja’s marital neglect because he brings home enough dough so she can spend her days gossiping at the salon.
The film was released in 1984, a year after the devaluation remembered as el viernes negro (Black Friday), when our dreams of becoming a developed country came crashing down.
These dreams were not so far-fetched—even the foreign press fell for them. I still have in my library an issue of National Geographic from August 1976, the month I was born, which features a story headlined ‘Venezuela’s Crisis of Wealth,’ dealing mostly with how the country would soon join the First World. It had a guest appearance by Diego Arria as Caracas governor.
In any case, Adiós, Miami purported to depict the apocalypse— the reckoning of Saudi Venezuela, victim of its own crazy schemes and moral rot. It rightly portrayed the end of an era. But what I got out of it, three decades after its making, was: these people didn’t even begin to fathom the deep, dark void that was around the corner.
Venezuela was just coming out of an epic, four-decade-long binge of economic growth. The crisis precipitated by the plunge in oil prices must have been a surprisingly strong blow, perhaps even for the Cassandras that had long been warning about it (think Perez Alfonso). It certainly was for the movie’s filmmakers, who had to cut short the Miami scenes because the bolivar suddenly plummeted.
I have a few specific memories of those years. I recall my parents hurriedly packing bags and embarking on their last weekend shopping trip to Florida, fearing further currency surprises. In subsequent years, Milky Way chocolates and apples became sought-after rarities. Overall we did ok: my brother and I had access to imported candy and Intellivision games thanks to my dad, an executive who traveled often. My mother’s side of the family—hailing from the lower-middle class –did not fare as well, and some took a leftward political turn over the years, as their fortunes worsened.
In the end they all ended, like Oswaldo F. Urbaneja, and like Saudi Venezuela, badly. My parents are stranded in a soul-sucking exile. Those who stayed are mostly hopeless. There’s some hope in the new generation—a large majority of whom live abroad and have done well thanks to one of the good things Saudi Venezuela left in its wake: a robust university-level education.
I haven’t lived in Venezuela for two decades, but have been back occasionally over the years. At some point I entertained the possibility of a return. The last few times I went there were right after Chavez’s death, following a six-year hiatus. I spent two weeks in Los Palos Grandes, feeling like a returning citizen of Rome must have felt in the early years of the 6th century, a generation after German-controlled army officially deposed the last emperor. The Forum and the Colosseum are still there, some friends are still cavorting inside in their villas, flamingo tongues are still for sale.
But it’s not the same. Something has been broken forever, and as of the people who built those monuments, or who could repair them, well… they’re all dead or gone to Byzantium.
Was it the empty shelves? The dark streets at night? The hostile demeanor of the clerk at the panaderia? Maybe it was the sycophantic rhetoric, so alien, and the shockingly unbelievable lies spouted by state propaganda, the undercurrent of half-baked authoritarianism, the Dark Ages kicking in. It took three decades, but the venal but benign place depicted in Adiós, Miami has morphed into a thinly-veiled Hobbesian nightmare.
I wonder what Gustavo Rodriguez would have thought of today’s Venezuela.