Letters from Caracas (May-June 2018)

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24 May 2018

I’m writing you from a cybercafé in Caracas, so I created a new email address to avoid using my regular email account on a public network. Please make sure to ringfence this address.

What follows is not in chronological order… I’ve been here almost three months. There’s plenty to talk about already… So I’ll explain things as they come to mind. Utter confusion… You won’t understand much at first… There’ll be lots of information gaps… I’ll explain as we go along… And also names and places… All changed… Because all of this is ongoing as I write… Even though the people involved will never know I’m reporting everything to you. So I’ll be mixing things up, though not much…

That’s for the preamble.

In truth, not much has happened here since last Sunday’s election, it was largely a non-event, Maduro was certain to be re-elected. As far as the few people I know are concerned, you might say there was a collective resignation regarding this re-election, deep depression about the state of the country, and total absence of any prospect for future improvement. Nonetheless, a discordant note amid this deep affliction from a chavista friend (people here are cleanly divided between two categories, “chavistas” and “anti-chavistas”, who violently denigrate each other… but is that not the way of the world, blocs in ever more hostile confrontation?.. or perhaps all of this is really quite normal), so a chavista I’m grateful to know as she is the only representative in my circle of this “pueblo bolivariano revolutionario” which brought chavez to power and continues, in the face of adversity, to support maduro and the ongoing “revolutionary process”, whose purpose is to rebalance the distribution of wealth among the population. For Maduro is supported by a large segment of the population, whom you might define as the forgotten of the old system (the pure “mono-economic” system based entirely on oil extraction and the importing of all consumer goods, food included), and therefore what changed in the perception of venezuela’s situation, is that the usual “clients” of the West became the losers of the current system, however they’re the ones with a monopoly on communication channels and who report on the internal situation. In other words, another front in the ongoing systematic information wars.

Just like the Congo and other deeply unequal systems, you can witness obscene wealth alongside street children combing through rubbish to find something to eat. Ok, dial back “obscene wealth” a notch (I don’t get to see the real wealth, just like elsewhere, it’s invisible, secret), I’m talking here about my fellow diners in downtown restaurants and cafés who, when ordering a pizza, a fruit juice and a cup of coffee, each spend the equivalent of 1.5 to 2 minimum monthly wages in a single meal… on the other hand, no need to put into perspective the group of 15 to 20 people who assemble every evening at the corner of the street, who conscienciously dissect the huge pile of rubbish bags stacked there, collecting pizza and sandwich leftovers. That is happening for real, calmly, silently and without any conflict, under a system of which I know nothing, but seems to factor in age and gender to enable each and every one to benefit equally. All those people, I mean in the restaurants – and there’s a lot of them, don’t start thinking everybody is going hungry – are “dollarised”, that is to say they have access to US dollars, which means that paradoxically, in a country where everything costs an arm and a leg (imagine in France a tube of toothpaste costing 200 euro, a cup of coffee 400 euro, today’s special in a neighbourhood restaurant somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 euro), everything becomes, with dollars converted at the parallel exchange rate, ridiculously cheap… (a cup of coffee drops to 25 cents, today’s special to 1 dollar, maybe 3 someplace more upmarket. And you’ll have a rough idea of the complexity of the economic woes afflicting the country.

Today the “dolar parallelo” is trading, on the “dolar today” website, at almost 1,000,000 bolivars (one million) for 1 USD. When I got here almost 3 months ago it was 200,000… Bear in mind, the minimum wage is 1.9 million bolivar, i.e. 2 dollars per month. My breakfast this morning with two fried eggs, fresh pineapple juice and a cup of coffee (very good coffee by the way) set me back 2 million. All these figures will be obsolete in 8 days’ time, so don’t bother memorising them…

So then? Incompetence, corruption, mismanagement, government of crooks?… or maybe? economic warfare waged out of Washington, organised shortages to destabilise the government and trigger a popular revolt sufficient to overthrow it? I honestly feel deeply incompetent to make such a judgment… such complex macroeconomic issues, totally biased media reporting on all sides… “both Sir”… there’s certainly a bit of it all in this “salsa toxica”…

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8 June 2018



Remember last week when I told you the dollar was closing in on the million bolivar mark, up from 200,000 three months ago… but not to memorise the figures, as they would soon be obsolete… well since the election, the dollar has erupted, metastised, burgeoned unabashed… doubling in the space of a week… settling yesterday at two million!! two million… that’s 10 times the rate when I got here 3 months ago… enough to make your head spin, as mum would say…

the other day, at the very same cyber I’m writing you from… a woman, busy photocopying passports, lots of passports, over a dozen… “that’s a lot of passports”, says I… “it’s my entire family… We’re taking off… To Chile”… All the hope in the world, the way she said “Chile”… The person next to me purchases medication online, then watches a youtube video… “the 7 best-living cities in South America”.

And I caught up with my Chavista friend, let’s call her Elena… When I met her two months ago, she said a few things bothered her about the existing government, but that overall she was still hopeful… things would work out… people shouldn’t just pack up and leave… but instead fight for the country.

Elena was a little down the other day. She can’t see thing improving anymore. Thinking about leaving with her brother… joining her mother, sister and niece in Spain… or elsewhere in South America… She has friends all over the place, given how many venezolanas y venezonalos have already left. She doesn’t really get enough to eat, but could never tell her mum in Spain… “I’m going to meet up with my brother, make a decision…” In spite of her wages and the CLAP, the distribution of free food packages organised by the government to address the food shortage and hyperinflation… especially hyperinflation… “there’s a lot less shortage than last year, says Elena, at one point store shelves were empty… it’s really worrying when you see the shops down below empty out… But the real problem now is the exchange rate… You can’t feed yourself on regular wages”…

I should also say… as a result of the vertiginous drop in the bolivar… the complete drying up of liquidity… Venezuela has become the first country in the world to deliver the wet dream of international financial organisations… A cashless society… The central bank obviously cannot keep up with the precipitous fall in the bolivar. On top of that, its banknotes are printed in Europe. By the time they arrive and are paid out… not one banknote left… or rather… lots of small banknotes that don’t buy anything much…

I got here by boat, sailing from Trinidad… a boat commuting twice a week from Cedros, a small fishing village in the south of the island, to Tucupita, a city nestled on the banks of the Orinoco river, in the far east of Venezuela. It was there, in Cedros, waiting for the “Angel del Orinoco”, the vessel in question, that I learnt of this… “No hay efectivo,” (there’s no cash) kept telling me all my fellow cruise passengers, as we waited for the “Angel” to dock, in the shade of a tree at the pier. They also informed me that I just might get my hands on some cash, but given the shortage, it traded like a good… at twice the actual rate. In bygone times, when the dollar was a mere two hundred thousand bolivars, to buy say one million bolivars you would transfer two million to the seller’s account… or, in my case, 10 US dollars… Naturally, paying with a Western credit card is out of the question, because the banks apply the official exchange rate, roughly 20 times less than the “paralelo”… making Venezuela about as hospitable as Switerland in terms of purchasing power.

I’ll be telling you more about these people, their suitcases bursting with toothpaste, deodorant, beauty products, clothes… bags of flour, new tyres, all the hardware they were hauling, ferrying home, and the dollars, rolled up tight and out of sight.

And they kept calling me “loco”, warning me not to set foot in the country.

“It’s not being able to enjoy life that also gets us down, says Elena. I’m thirty, so are my friends, our generation believed in the revolution… We meet up and lament, and then, say once a month, go out for a bit of fun and splash out… After that, it’s back to beans on toast for the rest of the month. Meanwhile, the restaurants are full. Truth be told, those who have dollars live the good life here”… I readily confirm to her that when I go out for a meal at a decent venue, where a mere drink costs one or two minimum wages… loads of people, every place jam-packed… Even then, I don’t go out in bling areas, like « las mercedes »… nightclubs and all the rest…

cashless… that means almost everything is paid with a card or by bank transfer. Caracas is known for its underground economy, tens of thousands of street vendors descending every morning from the “barrios”, the poor neighbourhoods built on the hills surrounding the city centre, setting up shop on the pavements and pedestrian streets to sell their wares… sweets chewing-gum cigarettes soft drinks fruit pastries etc. Well for the most part, the great majority are equipped with card payment terminals… and their little street stands display a sign, often hand-written, saying: “si hay punto”… cards accepted…

Get this straight… The largest banknote is one hundred thousand bolivar… Introduced 7 months ago, in November, when the dollar was worth 40,000 bolivar, where previously the highest denomination was 20,000, it was then worth (the one hundred thousand banknote) around 2.5 dollars… Today it’s worth 5 cents, tomorrow it will be 1… And it’s scarce… just about unavailable actually. Most banknotes in circulation have face values of one, two, five or ten thousand… A few twenty thousands as well… And there’s still a lot of 500 notes around… The banks allow only very limited withdrawals… twenty thousand, one hundred thousand… Roughly the equivalent of one tenth of a dollar… that’s if the ATMs aren’t empty… Staggeringly long queues, 10, 20, 50 meters long… stretching along the façades of buildings, patiently waiting in turn to withdraw a few derisory banknotes… That are barely worth the paper they’re printed on. But cashless or not, you still need some efectivo.

 

11 June 2018

I realise how difficult it is to talk about a country without exaggerating, talking through your hat, being overly influenced by people, experiences or observations… And how easy it is to miss the mark, if not completely, then at least in part… So here’s a disclaimer…

I’m only recounting personal experiences, impressions based on very little, a few conversations, some observations, all of which is highly fragmented… microscopic… from which you cannot make generalisations, or mistakenly think you know the country…

For instance, the other evening, some friends invited me out for a drink. I meet up with them earlish, 7pm… On the top floor of a dreary shopping mall, poorly lit, dirty concrete walls, run-down stores… Downtown, in a working class neighbourhood. I‘m early, so I take a stroll along the high street… Butcher shop, bakery, greengrocer… Locals shopping, chatting on the pavement… And a large square, one of many… children playing, teenagers flirting, old-timers lounging on their usual benches taking in the scenery with a benevolent eye… Benevolent is the word… A peaceful start to the evening exuding benevolence… A most ordinary start to the evening… Then I meet up with my friends, a deck on the top floor of the shopping mall… At the terrace of a bar… Loud music, bellowing voices, merry groups at every table, not really a bourgeois neighbourhood in these parts… Lower middle class… We order some mojitos, two rounds, then we change venues, a nightclub in the same neighbourhood. Not far from the square. We get there early, the place is almost empty. After a meticulous pat-down at the entrance, men and women both, and an ID check, we settle down in a box… leopard print benches and coffee table and my friends order a bottle of rum, which arrives with some lemonade and an ice bucket. Fifteen minutes later, I wouldn’t say everyone was dancing on tables, that would be an exaggeration… but not far off… salsa, merengue, electro… the DJ switches from one style to another and the dancefloor stays packed. A great atmosphere and the venue fills up quickly. “We love to party… and we’re hopeful about the future… we love our country… Please write your friends that we’re happy here.”