The Hard-Up Elite

This is a story about two friends of mine: Carola and Andrea. Carola is doing pretty well for herself. Born to a reasonably well-off Caracas family, she nevertheless enjoyed a free university education in La Cuarta and ended up taking a prestigious, even glamorous job at a prominent private firm you’ve certainly heard of. She enjoys her job, and it pays her reasonably well: certainly better than the outsized majority of people in the country. At cocktail parties – Carola is the kind of person who gets invited to cocktail parties now and then – she gets a lot of attention: her job fascinates people. A knowledge worker, she often works on projects with foreign partners, which has allowed her to develop a wide international network. All in all, Carola’s pretty well thriving: certainly, she’s a member of the elite.

Then there’s Andrea. She also got herself a free education financed by La Cuarta, and went on to get a professional job, but life’s a struggle. Her small apartment in a not-particularly-fashionable part of Caracas is in a 50 year old building that hasn’t received any maintenance in about as long. Most of her furniture are hand-me-downs from relatives. Maintaining a middle class lifestyle on the $600 a month she makes is a hard slog. Some of the choices she regularly has to make would shock most U.S. Americans. Sometimes, when you call her on her home phone, the thing’s just not connected: it’s hard to keep up with the bills, and sometimes her service just gets cut off while she catches up with them. Going out to catch a movie at the theater is a pretty special luxury: the kind of thing that she really has to plan for carefully because it will throw her finances all out of whack for who-knows-how-long. Andrea’s terrified to carry a balance on her credit card, but sometimes it just can’t be helped. In the U.S., somebody in her position would certainly be considered working poor. And her whole lifestyle, precarious as it is, gets more and more difficult to sustain with each passing year, because her pay rises just aren’t keeping pace with surging inflation.

As you’ll have guessed by now, Carola and Andrea are the same person. She’s just one of many of my friends who occupy a strangely contradictory social space I like to think of as the Hard-Up Elite: high-status professionals living off their salaries who are vastly better off than the average Venezuelan but struggle hard to afford the kind of lifestyle a truck driver in Madrid or a school lunch lady in Columbus, Ohio take for granted.

In Venezuela, this Hard-Up Elite is usually glossed as "the Middle Class" but, when you think about it, that’s a tag that obscures much more than it reveals. There’s nothing "middle" about them: they’re not in the "middle" of the income distribution, they’re decidedly towards the top end. Their lifestyles aren’t "average" in any meaningful sense: they have a level of economic and personal security most Venezuelans could only dream of. At the same time, they’e constantly on the brink – one pink-slip away from drastic hardship.  Certainly, they are decidedly not middle class in any way that would make sense to somebody in a developed country: nine-times-out-of-ten their mobile phones are pre-paid, and out of credit.

The Hard-Up Elite is at the same time the core of the anti-Chávez movement and the most misunderstood class in the country. Much more than the Moneyed Elite – which is just too small to be electorally relevant – it’s the Hard-Up Elite that’s made up the backbone of that 40% of the vote that’s always been the hard-core of the anti-chavista vote. Much more than the popular classes, who are better positioned to capture the government’s popular spending, it feels its future threatened by the government’s lunacy. Much more than any other group in the country, its social status and aspirations are fundamentally out of sync with its living standards.

Official discourse totally ignores this group. The dichotomous way Chávez carves up the country lumps everyone on the upper half of the income distribution into one big, undifferentiated mass of the rich, treating the Hard-Up Elite as identical to the Moneyed Elite. Which, culturally, is almost comprehensible: both of them finished high school and went to college. Both work indoors, typically behind desks, for multiples of the minimum wage. Both live in formally built housing, and both are much more likely to have names like Carola or Andrea than Yuleidi or  Yahaira.

So how can you tell them apart? Easy: the Moneyed Elite has credit on its cell phone, the Hard-Up Elite doesn’t.

One thing that’s always struck me as particular is the way the Hard-Up Elite scrambles first world people’s categories and understandings about Latin America, to the point where they really can’t see them. This, in a way, is a testament to the effectiveness of chavista propaganda abroad. The image of the Venezuelan opposition as a bunch of fat cats is now so deeply ingrained in foreigners’ understanding of the Chávez era – even when the foreigners in question are largely opposed to the government – that the Hard-Up Elite fades almost completely out of view.

Try to explain to your average European or North American that the vast majority of people who vote against the Venezuelan government are much, much poorer than they are, and all you get are blank stares back. "But, but…they’re lawyers and accountants, engineers and small business owners!" they’ll say. And that’s absolutely true. But they can’t necessarily afford more than one pair of new shoes a year. And that, also, is absolutely true.