A normal country?

At first glance, the graffiti reading “Un pais normal?” seems ambiguous in Venezuela’s frayed capital, where the government brandishes slogans like clenched fists and the opposition lobs insults at President Nicolás Maduro. Actually, the message on a Caracas wall is a tart comment in a place where talk of what is normal, or should be normal, has become common and touches nerves.

Normalcy elsewhere in the world doesn’t fit Venezuela, where extremes are the norm.

Graffiti that asks in Spanish
Graffiti that asks in Spanish “A normal country?” covers a wall in the middle-class neighborhood of Alta Florida in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Boris Vergara)

Two men say they are president. The worst nationwide blackouts last month played havoc with millions of people. Hyperinflation has slashed many monthly salaries to the equivalent of a few dollars. One-tenth of the population — over 3 million and growing — has fled, causing Latin America’s biggest migration crisis.

Don’t think of Venezuela’s chaos as the new normal, warns opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

“There can’t be normality when we Venezuelans can’t even communicate with our family members and some have to look for water in the Guaire (river) to slake the thirst of their children,” Guaidó tweeted during electricity outages in March.

FILE - In this April 14, 2019 file photo, Venezuelans cross illegally into Colombia near the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, top, which is partially closed by Venezuelan authorities who are only permitting students, seniors and the sick to cross, seen from La Parada near Cucuta, Colombia. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)
FILE – In this April 14, 2019 file photo, Venezuelans cross illegally into Colombia near the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, top, which is partially closed by Venezuelan authorities who are only permitting students, seniors and the sick to cross, seen from La Parada near Cucuta, Colombia. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)

Guaidó’s supporters worry that anger over the country’s escalating problems will fade and therefore extend the rule of Maduro, whose re-election last year was denounced as illegitimate by Guaidó as well as the United States and about 50 other nations.

“It’s not normal,” read a cardboard poster at an opposition rally in Caracas this month. It listed miserable conditions now synonymous with Venezuela: a lack of water and light, commuter trains that resemble saunas (when they work), hospitals without enough medication, and self-exile as a way to survive.

Maduro, meanwhile, tries to project reassurance, saying the water supply is “normalizing” and announcing an electricity rationing plan as the grid stabilizes, for now, in Caracas and other politically key areas. But he also stokes an idea of crisis with references to a “permanent battle” against the United States and other perceived enemies allegedly bent on unraveling Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” and its socialist system.

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a woman holds a large wad of bills to pay her bus fare in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)
FILE – In this Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a woman holds a large wad of bills to pay her bus fare in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

Maduro’s government has described migration from Venezuela as “normal” and denied there is a humanitarian crisis, despite considerable evidence that there is. In tacit recognition that it can’t cope on its own, the government has agreed to allow the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to begin delivering medical aid this month.

While a Peruvian foreign minister once described Maduro as “not a normal person,” the Venezuelan leader can dish it out as well. Last week, he said U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s behavior was “abnormal” because he so frequently — obsessively, in Maduro’s view — criticizes the Venezuelan government.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also talking up normality. On Sunday, he met with Venezuelan migrants in the Colombian border city of Cucuta and said Venezuela lacked medicine and other basic items “which under normal circumstances, in any normal country, would be readily available.”

FILE - In this March 11, 2019 file photo, people collect water falling from a leaking pipeline along the banks of the Guaire River during rolling blackouts, which affects access to running water in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)
FILE – In this March 11, 2019 file photo, people collect water falling from a leaking pipeline along the banks of the Guaire River during rolling blackouts, which affects access to running water in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)

As Maduro and Guaidó spar over what normal means and who is to blame for Venezuela’s shocking decline, a lot of Venezuelans are too preoccupied to gauge their own diminishing expectations.

Some residents of the poor Caracas neighborhood of La Vega say the flow of tap water to their homes hasn’t been reliable for more than a year, long before Venezuela’s recent shortages. This week, several dozen blocked a road and banged pots in anger over the current system of receiving water from cisterns.

“Piped water — we want to get water the way we did before,” said protester Jhony Peraza. “Because what do we do with water for one day, two days? And then? Afterward, we don’t have more water and then we have the same problem again.”

FILE - In this March 11, 2019 file photo, a little girl stands inside a plastic barrel while her family waits to collect water from an open pipe above the Guaire River, during rolling blackouts which has cut people off from running water in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)
FILE – In this March 11, 2019 file photo, a little girl stands inside a plastic barrel while her family waits to collect water from an open pipe above the Guaire River, during rolling blackouts which has cut people off from running water in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

The Venezuelan catastrophe has unspooled for years, fueled by corruption, incompetence and oil dependency. The reality is wrenching for a nation whose idea of normal in now-distant good times encompassed flowing oil revenues, booming construction and generous government handouts.

A column in El Impulso, a Venezuelan media outlet, reflected on a country seemingly going off the rails.

“Everything is out of place. Everything and nothing is the same thing in the country. Salaries and basic needs aren’t aligned. The normal country that we once knew is lost, mutilated, abducted,” it said.

FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2018 file photo, a girl walks in a camp built by the municipal government for homeless Venezuelan migrants in Bogota, Colombia. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia, File)
FILE – In this Nov. 21, 2018 file photo, a girl walks in a camp built by the municipal government for homeless Venezuelan migrants in Bogota, Colombia. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia, File)

“We’ve become,” the commentary concluded, “an abnormal country.”

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FILE - In this March 10, 2019 file photo, people push a car without fuel to one of the few gas stations that has its own electric generator during an electricity blackout in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)
FILE – In this March 10, 2019 file photo, people push a car without fuel to one of the few gas stations that has its own electric generator during an electricity blackout in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)
FILE - In this March 14, 2019 file photo, 72-year-old Elizabeth Guzman Espitia navigates a narrow passages up to her windowless room she calls her
FILE – In this March 14, 2019 file photo, 72-year-old Elizabeth Guzman Espitia navigates a narrow passages up to her windowless room she calls her “little cave” during a blackout in the Santa Cruz of the East neighborhood, in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)