Culture Shot No. 5: Homeland (Patria)

Source: Efecto Eco, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

The Spanish word patria means “homeland or adoptive land organized as a nation, to which the human being feels bound by legal, historical and affective bonds”.

In the Venezuelan news media, patria is a word that appears frequently. Examining stories appearing within 86 Venezuelan sources between the months of June and December 2017, we discover that word patria appears in at least 17,020 news stories. During that period, Venezuela experienced a cycle of mass protests against the government, the emergence and decline of a civil resistance movement, and three controversial elections for a Constituent Assembly, governors and mayors.

Number of sentences containing ‘patria’ in the media collections during the June-December 2017 time period of our investigation. Source: Media Cloud.

When we analyze dominant terms among those 17 thousand stories, many of them make sense. The notion of homeland, of nation or country, seems to have natural associations with terms like nacional, pueblo, país, soberanía and república (national, people, country, sovereignty and republic), regardless of national context. As we are searching Venezuelan media, it also makes sense that we should find references to the country and its citizens (Venezuela, venezolanos), its history (independence hero Simón Bolívar) or political values such as unidadpaz, and justicia (unity, peace, and justice).

Source: Media Cloud. Search of “patria” fom June – December 2017 in the NewsFrames Venezuela Collection (view original query). Terms that caught our attention for further investigation as unusual are underlined.

But we also found word pairings with patria that appeared to be specific to Venezuela. Patria was often found, for instance, in news about the Venezuelan economy, such as this story about proposed new rules for bank loans to enterprises. We found it as well in this story about President Maduro calling on people to vote for the government in elections.

The most prominent word in the cloud, however, is carnet (ID card). What does the idea of “homeland” have to do with an ID card?  For a Venezuelan, the answer to that question is obvious.

The Homeland Card (“Carnet de la Patria”) is a new identity card issued by the Venezuelan government. Venezuelan citizens need this card to access welfare services as well as public programs such as the following:

  1. The CLAP [Spanish acronym for Local Committee for Supply and Production], a system allowing people to purchase scarce food items such as rice, pasta, vegetable oil, canned tuna, lentils, beans, sugar, milk, coffee and corn flour, directly from government distributors
  2. Medicine from public hospitals
  3. Social security pensions
  4. Housing subsidized by the State
  5. Jobs in the public sector.

According to President Maduro, 16 million people are registered users of the Homeland Card. This figure constitutes more than a half of the national population.

And indeed, when limiting the search to focus on stories that pair patria and carnet, words related to social welfare programs (misiones, CLAP, pago, bono, pensiones, chamba ) stand out in the cloud.

Source: Media Cloud. Digging deeper in the search for themes around ‘carnet’ and ‘patria’.

But words associated with elections (votar, electoral, registro) emerge as well. What does social services have to do elections? We looked among the articles referenced in Media Cloud to find out.

Here's what we discovered: On the back of the Homeland Card there is a QR code that links to a centralized social security database. The same QR code was used to register voters for the recent controversial Constituent Assembly.

  • QR Code: System that controls the votes for Maduro [Código QR: Sistema que controla los votos de Maduro]
    El Carabobeño, 24 July 2017
    Among these four structures there are two with a fundamental role: one, the Movimiento Somos Venezuela, an organization of government supporters that verifies economic needs directly in households, in order to enter the data on a waiting list for government benefits, while promoting the permanence of the Bolivarian revolution.The second: the Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP), a system that distributes packages of food to low-income families, who must complete this registration.

By means of the QR code, the government party can access welfare information for around around 80% of registered voters, according to figures cited by President Maduro. Indeed, there may be an even deeper connection between elections and social services: after the December 10 mayoral elections, several news reports from independent online media argued that the Homeland Card (“Carnet de la Patria”) was used to coerce people to vote:

  • The “carousel” of the PSUV: Final thrust to the secret ballot [El “carrusel” del PSUV: Estocada final al voto secreto]
    El Estímulo, 19 December 2017
    The chain begins with the first voter who registers with their Homeland Card at a red point [Government party booth], enters the polling booth, selects their preferred option on the voting machine, but instead of depositing the physical ballot in the box, they take it back to the same red point where they left their Homeland Card, to show who they voted for. The first rupture [of the secrecy of the vote.] That paper ballot is then handled to a second voter, who also leaves their Homeland Card at that red point, enters the polling site, votes at the machine and when they go to the voting booth will deposit the ballot of the first person, keeping their own in order to hand it over at the red point. Thus confirming that they voted for the “correct” candidate in order to obtain welfare benefits.

So for Venezuelans, “homeland” (patria) is now a term that can refer to election fraud or basic foodstuff, rather than notions of nation or sovereignty. As a Venezuelan, the word patria also evokes tales of hunger and political humiliation from friends, acquaintances, and relatives still living in our ExPatria.

To learn more about Venezuela's notion of homeland, here are some more stories from Global Voices:

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