Cubazuela Chronicles

“This is where I bring the Cubans,” he says.

I’m with my buddy Joaquín. We’re in one of those upscale Caracas cafés that makes you wonder what people in Venezuela complain about.

The place would not look out of place in a Scandinavian architecture magazine. We are surrounded by sumptuous food from all over the world, and by what has to be Caracas’ most beautiful people, the crème of Chacao fauna. A couple of ladies-who-lunch sit next to me, busily chatting about makeup. Three intellectual wannabes sit across the hall discussing Chávez’s yet-to-be-disclosed illness. The post-modern criollo sound of Huáscar Barradas, at just the right volume, fills the air. In short, it’s one of the few remaining post-modern Venezuelan oases.

“Wow,” I respond. “You must really like them. This place is pretty nice.”

“No, no, no. I bring them so they can feel sorry about their miserable little lives. I hate those coñuemadres.”

Joaquín has been a friend since college. He had always been interested in government work, but after graduating, he couldn’t get hired by the Caldera administration, so he went into private business instead. Resentful about the IVth Republic’s antics, he voted for Chávez, but quickly realized his government was going nowhere.

After a brief stint abroad, saudade for his country was strong, so he decided to head back. This was 2003, right when things were in upheaval and the entire government was being renovated.

Thanks to lifelong leftie connections and a brief dabbling with subversion, Joaquín was deemed a perfect fit for the growing chavista bureaucracy. He is now a middle manager at a government office, making BsF 4.500 a month, in charge of, among other things, international relations.

In other words, he is in charge of dealing with the Cubans.

“It always has to be the Cubans,” he says. “You can’t really bring experts from other parts of the world. The Cubans take precedence.”

I ask him why the bad attitude toward the Cubans. After all, it’s not their fault.

“It’s the way they behave when they come,” he says, “their sense of entitlement. I don’t care how good their education is, they think that just because Chávez has a man-crush, they can come here and treat us like savages, like they’re coming to do our job for us. And you cannot believe how uneducated they really are – they’re twenty years behind on everything. Even when they write, their grammar is bad.”

He tells me how it usually goes. The Cubans send them a list of the people that will be coming, typically for a one-month stay. The Venezuelan entity in charge of their trip has to pay for their airfare.

“And then, usually a day before their trip, they call you up to tell you they can’t come because their passport is expired.”

According to Joaquín, the passports of all the Cuban bureaucrats are held in some vault in Havana. Their handlers only check the passports a few days before they have to travel, and it’s frequently the case that the passports are expired. This means their plane tickets have to be changed at the last minute.

And who picks up the tab for the enormous fees the airlines charge? Doña Petra de la esquina, that’s who.

Negotiations with the Cubans begin and end with discussions of their daily stipends. They don’t really care what they are coming for. According to Joaquín, all they care about is how much money they are going to receive. Inevitably, tensions arise with the local underpaid bureaucracy.

“After a few of these trips, I began to realize how connected they really are. One time they asked for a daily stipend that I thought was excessive, so I told them that we were considering whether they would get any stipend at all. A half hour later, the Minister calls me up. He tells me that the Cubans have informed him that we are not open to giving them what they need, and that if I’m not going to help them, I have to resign.”

“The Cuban minister called you?!” I ask, slightly confused.

“No, no. The Venezuelan minister, my boss’s boss’s boss. The Cubans have a direct line to those guys.”

He tells me of the Cubans’ resentment at Venezuelans’ way of life. The Cuban he brought to the café was a particularly annoying one, always angry because Joaquín was sending him emails via his Blackberry.

“Oh right,” he apparently wrote, “you send me messages from your little thingy. Lucky you.”

“The worst part,” he says, “is having to take them shopping.”

It turns out the Cubans are terrified of walking the streets in Caracas alone. Aside from the crime problem, which is much worse than in their country, they have felt intimidated by Venezuelan shopkeepers. More than once, they have been kicked out of trendy stores because of their accents.

And stores are what they want to see, everything from TVs to underwear, from jeans to medicine. El Palacio del Blumer is a particular favorite. The Venezuelans who accompany them help carry their bags, pay for their bills, ask questions, and arrange the shipping.

“We even have to pay the excess luggage fees,” he says. “Boxes of flat-screen TVs, suitcases, you name it. We max out the allowed limit on each trip.”

You can imagine the resentment this breeds on the local bureaucracy. Luckily, Joaquín is single and he makes ends meet, but BsF 4,500, though considered a great salary in Venezuela, is peanuts for a professional with graduate studies abroad. A secretary, or a doorman, make but a portion of that. They’re not stupid – they see what the institutions’ budget is used on.

The dislike of the Cubans seems to run deep in the Venezuelan state apparatus’ rank-and-file.

I know Joaquín is not chavista, but I ask him about his bosses. Are they all convinced chavistas? Don’t they see this simply isn’t working?

“Oh, they’re very critical. They started out believing in the revolution, the ones higher up. But they know this isn’t working anymore. They go to the marches and wear red, but what choice do they have? It’s not like before.”

Still, I tell him, I bet they go and vote chavista anyway.

“Yeah,” he tells me. “I think so too. Because, you see, this doesn’t work, but at least now they are getting their slice of the pie. At least now, they’re inside the bubble, working on something they like, and they are being taken into account. They know that if Chávez goes, so does their job. It’s all a matter of survival.”

I munch on my profiteroles, wondering what this place will become once the Havanization of Caracas is complete.