Allie Mast is a December ’23 graduate of politics and international relations, with an American politics concentration and a minor in English.

This post is the twelfth of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse.

When democracies stumble, we are quick to point to human fallibility. When democracies flourish, seldom do we point to the beauty of humankind, in its capacities for resiliency, rationality, and empathy. In times of flourishing, do we notice our ability to profoundly know one another? To recognize that, even if we are not neighbors by proximity, perhaps we are neighbors in the shared experience of humanity. There is an author who has achieved a balance of both, detailing the roots of a democracy’s plunge into chaos, while also intimately narrating the stories of a nation’s people. In Things are Never So Bad that They Can’t Get Worse, William Neuman embarks upon a telling of Venezuela’s history and humanity. From a standpoint of clarity, he may be limited by his quest for narrative creativity, but this is hardly a detriment to his message of the tragic beauty of imperfect beings in an imperfect system.

In detailing Venezuela’s deeply-rooted corruption, Neuman underscores the nuance in our conversations about human morality. Corruption has ravaged Venezuela, penetrating not only its government but also generating corruption among its citizens. After Chávez instituted currency controls, everyone—the Chavistas, the financiers, and especially the middle class—began to buy cheap dollars to sell for a profit on the black market (176). Neuman writes that:

The nation was an all-you-can-eat-buffet and everyone was pushing to the front to fill
their pockets with delicacies before they ran out…It destroys your sense of right and
wrong…It destroys your sense of belonging to a society, something that matters and has
value. It destroys the idea of being a citizen (177).

The corruption demonstrated here was partially to satisfy human greed. But the middle class was not immune from Venezuela’s food and medicine shortages and the power blackouts. What if the black-market profits provided resources for a hungry family? As further fodder for this conversation, we can examine the role of gang bosses in Venezuela. After a woman’s daughter disappeared, the neighborhood’s gang boss, who is the “law in a lawless place” tracked down the man who had kidnapped and killed the girl (92). Presumably, the gang boss killed the man, as “that’s how justice is done in the barrio” (93). The morality of corruption in Venezuela is a question of means and ends. In an admittedly unethical way, Venezuela’s corruption has provided and likely will continue to provide (so long as there remain gaps left by the government) some twisted form of good.

Neuman succeeds in his criticism of America’s approach to relations with Venezuela. While it is an unfortunate reality that Neuman may scrutinize his government’s actions with no repercussions, we know from Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse (for instance, the experience of José Vincente) that such liberty does not exist in every corner of the world. Neuman details the experience of Tom Shannon, who was, for many years, “considered to be the person in the U.S. government who best understood what was happening in Venezuela” (185). In times when American leaders might have chosen an aggressive policy, Shannon advised diplomatic and moderate approaches. Shannon retired during the Trump presidency, at a point where he had largely been shut out of discussions about Venezuela (193). Neuman allows dissent to occupy space in the narrative as Shannon explains how the Trump administration lacked an understanding of Chavismo and the larger social, political, cultural, and historical contexts within which Venezuela operates: “I think that’s foolish, quite frankly,” says Shannon (193). By including criticism, Neuman does the work of holding the United States accountable. In doing so, he makes Venezuela’s lack of accountability, and the inability of Venezuelans to hold their government accountable, all the more stark.

To this author, there is little room for disagreement with Neuman, for this book is a telling of history and a portrayal of Venezuelans’ life experiences. Disagreement with the characters and policies of Chávez and Maduro would be too great a task and plain disagreement with the citizens who have fallen victim to populism would be ignorant of the experiences that have molded their understanding of a legitimate government. Instead, we can direct our disagreement towards Neuman, as the one who has organized the telling of Venezuela’s history and humanity. Indeed, Neuman is successful in crafting a unique pace and maintaining the attention of the audience with his narrative creativity. In doing so, however, he sacrificed a degree of historical clarity. For a reader who might be entirely unfamiliar with Venezuela’s history, Neuman’s bouncing back and forth between history and personal narrative is potentially confusing. For instance, the interspersing of the “Blackout” chapters kept the reader from a chronological time context. Ultimately, Neuman’s authorial choices are a tradeoff that is in service of the book’s narrative strengths.

William Neuman’s Things are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse is a commitment to truth where he sets forth what he has witnessed: a democracy’s infliction of suffering upon its people. His narration is not paralyzed by the weighty task of portraying hardship and corruption. By way of narrative creativity, Neuman illustrates a people who have found the bravery and courage to persist amid darkness. As students of politics, may we strive, just as Neuman, to know and understand, not only the details of geo-politics and a nation’s history, but the experiences of our neighbors both near and far.


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