I have been silent for a long time, busy with lots of stuff. Finally I finished my thesis, doing much more than anybody expected, my start up got some funding and developed a prototype device (more about that on another post). Life has been hectic, but despite that, I have found the time to write about the terrible situation that is going on here in Venezuela. Fortunately, Xeni Jardin, from BoingBoing, agreed to publish the following piece there, and it got a very good feedback.
Here it is the latest attack on our freedoms, an attack that to me is extremely painful and personal. I vow to never, ever obey this law.
Last Thursday in Venezuela, a new law criminalizing "violent" video games and toys was approved by the National Assembly.
The law scapegoats gamers for the obscene levels of violence in our country (see below), and goes to extraordinary lengths to criminalize gaming, to the point of holding out long jail terms to people who buy the wrong kinds of games.
It's no joke. Last year, on a trip to the US, I was able to buy a Nintendo DS for my brother, and a puzzle game that deals with using weapons to defend the fish stock of penguins in Antarctica, Defendin' de Penguin. Early next year, when the law kicks in, bring such a game could land me in jail for 3 to 5 years, for importing forbidden violent games, as the penguins use snowball guns to ward off walruses, foxes (in Antarctica? OMG think of Biogeography!), polar bears and the Yeti.
The law is just the latest nail in the coffin of Venezuelans' right of dissent and broader civil liberties. A pitiful attempt to blame video games and toys for the widespread lethal violence in our country, instead of a defective judicial structure, systemic corruption and governmental (purposeful?) ineptitude to deal with the problem.
I am 26 years old. Ever since I can remember Venezuela has been a very dangerous place. Every year the body count seemed to climb higher than the previous year. Being on the streets after dark, especially in the big cities, became a little bit more dangerous with each passing year, no matter who was in power or how high prices for our oil rose.
I believed it was just a fact of life. Then, ten years ago, Hugo Chávez came to power promising change at every level, promising a new, less corrupt, wealthier, safer society. Most of my friends and family voted for him, to register their contempt for our traditional politicians, because they wanted justice and a decent country.
Ten years later, we are indeed wealthier, thanks to a feverish oil boom, but the country's also falling deeper into debt, issuing bonds and getting loans even from the despised Capitalist tool that is the IMF, and printing money like there's no tomorrow, while our electric system collapses, many staples are hard to find on store shelves, our hospitals are rotting and corruption and crime are still getting worse.
The official position is that crime is a byproduct of poverty and inequality. The official numbers say that poverty and inequality have decreased dramatically so, how is it possible that today we have one of the worst crime rates in the entire world? Our murder rates are among the top five in the world. Barinas, the rural State where Chávez is from and where his brother is governor, has the highest kidnapping rate in the world. (The governor's reply? People are kidnapping themselves to make the government look bad.) And if you live in Caracas today, you are at substantially higher risk of meeting a violent death than if you live in Iraq these days.
One thing is clear: either crime is not caused merely by poverty and inequality, as the murder rates in Bangladesh seem to confirm, or the government has not reduced poverty and inequality as much as it claims (as a glance to the barrios of Caracas seems to confirm). Or perhaps both.
Either way, the government has proven grossly incompetent at protecting its citizens. The pseudo-socialist clique that governs us plainly cares much more about protecting its own members. Recent press reports show that more cops in Caracas are devoted to protecting politicians and their families as body guards than to roaming the streets, and let's not even talk about crimes carried out by the police. Amid all this, the authorities seem to spend what limited resources are at the justice system's disposal on criminalizing dissent.
Venezuelan chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega has repeatedly argued that having the wrong opinion (a.k.a. "publishing information that may destabilize the government" or "causing a perception of impunity through the press") should be made a crime punishable with 10 years in jail. After recent protests, she has put student protesters in our worse jails because they spray-painted walls, and detained dozens labor movement protestors without trial for months on end for what amount to political crimes.
While Venezuela burns, our authorities are busy criminalizing those who protest, rather than those setting the fires.
Let's put this in perspective. Last year, we had almost 14,000 deaths due to crime, out of a population of about 27 million people. Let's round it up to 28 million, and make some calculations: If Bangladesh had our murder rate, there would be 125,000 murder victims there every year, if the US had our murder rate, we would be talking about 150,000 deaths due to crime, if Japan had our problem, there would be 60000 Japanese dead due to crime every time our pretty planet goes around the sun. If China and India had our levels of violence, we would get rid of 1,100,000 people every year.
The numbers of death due to violence do not seem so big in Venezuela due to our smallish population, but this a serious problem that is only getting worse after almost 11 years of Bolivarian rule. The number of people mugged, assaulted and robbed are much greater than that. Some relatives of mine have been shot and stabbed, most of my friends have been robbed at least once, and I had to jump from a bus in motion to avoid being robbed a month ago, in Mérida, where I live, a university town that not so long ago used to be relatively safe. In Valera, where my parents live, it is unwise to go out after 9 in the streets, and after 8:30, it gets really difficult to find public transportation.
So, will the government correct its strategy, accept that we have a huge problem that has to be solved ASAP and will follow its rhetoric and work along the communities to tackle crime (Death penalty and traditional top-down approaches won't work)?
No. Instead, it will blame the gamers for the problem.
Yes, we are to blame, because we cannot tell fantasy from reality and because video games make us violent, morons who will throw people out of cars just like in Grand Theft Auto and kill them, because even though games come with ratings, just like movies, I, an adult citizen, cannot be trusted to use them wisely.
This law makes selling video games to anybody actually worse than giving real guns or cigarettes to a minor, or even forcing him or her to work, as you get less jail time and lower fines if you do any of those things.
I have to be protected from them, so I don't go into a killing spree. (If I were so impressionable, I would not be writing this, I would have swallowed completely the huge amount of propaganda they feed to us). Our Parliament, instead of addressing our real needs, behaves like the bunch of escapist, authoritarian demagogues they are, imposing their decrees on us, because they are know they are right, and those of us who dissent, surely are rich elitist bastards who hate the poor, traitors who hate Venezuela and work for sinister, evil and shady foreign powers (If you follow American politics, this attitude should ring some alarms to you).
Surely a government that calls itself Socialist would have corrected a gross mistake by previous administrations: our marginal tax rate for the richest citizens is 34%, which is less than what the American marginal tax rate was when Bush gave tax cuts to Donald Trump and Warren Buffet. One would think that after ten years of Socialist government focused on the poor and against the evil rich, the fiercely egalitarian Venezuelan MPs would have found the time to increase the taxes of the hated rich to the same level of such boring, bland, flavorless, countries as Finland, New Zealand, Sweden or Canada.
Instead, they have been too busy forbidding video games, porn (2 to 6 years in jail for filming porn, as it goes against "good customs" and family) and human genetic engineering (The law is written in such an imprecise language than creating Human Recombinant Insulin could lead me to jail), while our president befriends murderers, genocides, golpistas (coup makers, like Gambia's president Yahya Jammeh), and tyrants and giving them replicas of the sword of Bolívar, The Liberator.
Our president also claims that despite shutting down 34 opposition radio stations based on administrative technicalities, despite the constant harassment of dissident cable stations, and criminalizing of protests, this is the country with most Freedom of Speech in the whole world, the same thing that Silvio Scumbag Berlusconi said about Italy and pretty much what American jingoists, immune to facts love to say, "America is the Freest Country in The World", despite America's sickening incarceration rates and its aversion to cognitive liberty.
Venezuelan authorities' record on cognitive freedom is also laughable, with our authorities making wild claims about super marijuana (provided by the evil Colombians) that causes Alzheimer, and banning Family Guy from the air because it promotes the evil liberal American attitudes to drugs.
Most likely, not that many people will end up in jail due to the anti-gaming law. But it could easily be used to coerce, to extort and to pressure people who find themselves on the revolution's shit list, to make you feel powerless, like a criminal, to make you ashamed and scared.
Laws here get enforced selectively, but when the government issues so many laws criminalizing so many behaviours, sooner or later you are going to break one, so you better be well behaved and, above all, you better not criticize the powerful. If you do, they'll go through your hobbies... and when they do, they're bound to find something they can use against you.
Another possibilities is that they may be trying to target cybercafés and Internet services for those who lack net connection at home, as Counter Strike and other on-line games are a big source of revenues for cybercafés. In any case, even if individuals don't go to jail, stores won't sell games anymore.
Whichever explanation you favor, what we have here is just another brick in the wall, another piece of a strategy to slowly but surely build a legal wall against political dissent, even as our society goes to the dogs.
This situation is painful to behold. Even if I barely game at all these days, I am a gamer at neocortex. I spent countless hours solving puzzles, riddles and fighting monsters in dungeons. I rescued Toadstool many times, only to be told that thanks, but my Princess was in another castle, later I joined Link and rescued Zelda from Agahnim and Ganon, using the Master Sword and the Silver Arrows. I got the Zantetsu sword and cut metal, I summoned Ifrit, Odeen and Behemoth. From Dragoon, I became a Paladin. I sneaked on Big Boss' fortress in Zanzibar and stopped doomsday with Solid Snake. I fought along a Double Dragon trapped on a Final Fight, using my Killer Instinct in a Mortal Kombat in which only the greatest Street Fighter would come alive. I was Linked to the Past by a Chrono Trigger, my Soul Blazing, as I lived my Final Fantasies, Wandering from Ys, arriving to a Lagoon, to learn about the Secret of Mana, and finally understood that there is Ever More to life.
These games are a cherished part of my life, they helped to shape my young mind, they gave me challenges and vastly improved my English, opening the door to a whole new world of literature, music and people from all around the world. What I have achieved, all my research, how I have been able to travel even though I'm always broke, the hard work I've done to convince people to fund a start up for cheap biotech for developing countries and regular folks, none of that would have been possible hadn't I learned English through video games.
Now, thanks to the tiny horizons of the cast of morons who govern me, thanks to the stupidity and ham-fisted authoritarianism of the local authorities, so beloved of so many liberals, my 7 year old brother's chances to do the same could be greatly impacted.
Even if my parents could afford to buy a NES or a SNES when the times were good for us, we could not afford to buy games, so I played Mario a lot. I used to go to game parlors and play, made friends there, speaking not only about swords and crystals, combo breakers and special attacks, but also about AI, the future and technology, about that mysterious thing called the Internet (I met a girl who tried Compuserve!) and about nuclear war.
Fifteen years later, my little brother lives in a world where the scarcity of games can be bypassed with the right tools, where mod chips and special cards allow him to emulate really old games on newer devices, where he needs to learn the basics about hacking if he wants to fully use his Nintendo DS.
Yesterday I was explaining to my little brother how any computer could in theory, emulate another computer, and how that made it possible to play really old games (Older than him!) on his DS. I was explaining what a terminal window and a program were and how I converted videos to a format that his DS can understand. And he was thrilled, his eyes lit with pleasure, technology was a bridge that got us closer. If we blindly follow the copyright and video game forbidding laws, we won't be able to do this anymore, and he will stop learning as much as he could gaming and hacking, finding his way to talk to machines to get them to do what he needs.
But I won't obey, I will be an outlaw gamer, and I vow to teach him as much as I can and as much as he is willing to learn, as early as possible. I refuse to give up my rights to a government that is commanded by Vuitton clad jerks asking sacrifices from us, I refuse to stop gaming because a bunch of control freaks tell me that I will become a killer and that the wonderful games that enriched my childhood are psycho factories.
If I get fined for writing this (Article 13, promoting the use of violent videogames), so be it. If I go to jail because I carry roms in my hard drive or in an R4 card for my brother, next time I return to the country, so be it. But I'd rather go to jail than betray the gamer culture, partially responsible for making me the person I am today.
Enough is enough, and I am fed with this government of morons, pretending to be socialist while living a luxurious lifestyle, paying very little taxes and plundering our oil money. This is a travesty, a pacifist government who gets loans from Russia to buy rifles, tanks and missiles, whose official motto is "Fatherland, Socialism or Death", whose leader calls other people subhuman, and constantly speaks about war. A socialist system that offers lower taxes than Bush for the rich people, that gives no-bid contracts to Chevron Texaco, a progressive govt. spreading lies about marijuana and promoting a new law that requires education on breastfeeding for our girls, but no education on reproductive freedoms, a system that promotes sovereignty and dignity micromanaging my life and telling what I have to do, what I cannot do and stepping on my rights to mind my business as long as I do not harm anybody else.
The only thing more puzzling to me than liberals being eager of supporting this, is that social conservatives hate him despite his strong family values, opposition against vice and low taxes for the rich.
Now, that games have been outlawed, I am an outlaw, but there is hope. My brother is learning that sometimes being an outlaw is the right thing to do, that some laws are not fair and must be opposed and that breaking the law does not makes you a bad person.
That is a hard thing to explain to a seven year old, but now he understands it really well. I do not know if he will ever become a hacker, but he is already a rebel and a happy mutant.
More links about the situation in Venezuela:
• Caracas Chronicles
• The Devil's Excrement
• El Libertario (In Spanish, Anarchist News)
• Radar De Los Barrios (In Spanish, complains from the people living in the slums)