The Little Shopkeeper That Couldn’t…

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JayDee says: Of all the neighborhoods I have explored in Caracas, El Valle is one of my favorites. There is always something interesting going on in the area.

A few months back, I had a fascinating conversation with a shopkeeper whose little bodega is situated right in between the working class high-rises of El Valle and the Calle 13 barrio.

The first time I met José, I’d stopped for a cold Polar after a long afternoon touring the various misiones in the neighborhood. His storefront is surrounded by what many Chávez supporters would regard as the crowning achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution. Free soup kitchens, adult literacy programs, grass roots community radio stations, all gracias a Chávez, can be found within blocks of his bodega. From the rooftop of the man’s store, you can throw a rock and hit the front door of the house where Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto was born.

The area is almost all Chávista, of course.

José’s bodega is modest. His sales consist mostly of beer and cigarettes, though children often pass through with a handful of change to buy candy, and he carries some basic groceries – fresh bread and sandwich meat, a few canned goods and milk.

His store is the only source of revenue for both himself and his family, and he has been in this spot for approaching two decades. His shelves used to be stocked with a wide variety of groceries, though since the Mercal (subsidized supermarket) opened down the street a few years back, his inventory and his income have slowly dried up.

One small shopkeeper can’t vie for business with the government. It is financially impossible for the man to offer competitive prices, and as his earnings have slowed, the goods he is able to stock have dwindled. Selling beers and cigarettes one at a time is all that’s keeping him afloat.

“Anyone but Chávez,” he said when I asked him how he planned to vote in December.

“His government has benefited many in the area, definitely, and I understand why people like him. But his policies aren’t very well thought through. I am not of the oligarchy, I was never rich; but I put my children through college with this store. And now…” he trailed off as his arm swept over a mostly empty shelf.

José’s story illustrates just how complex governance is, and shows a major shortcoming of the Chávez administration.

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who is opposed to the principals behind many of the misiones. Who is going to argue that a father living in Petare shouldn’t learn to read, or that a mother living in 23 de Enero shouldn’t be able to afford a carton of milk for her kid?

Too often the debate on what is going on in Venezuela is side-tracked into a meaningless caricature of an argument.

Jose’s problem with Mercal doesn’t stem from the fact that he is an elite from El Country Club who hates the poor, but from the fact that the government’s dismal planning has actually made it more difficult for him (a working class man from a working class neighborhood) to eke out a living.

And then people wonder why the percentage of those working in the informal economy is so high…

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