"¡Aquí fue!"

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    Lee Hamilton“I haven’t had tenderloin in two years.”

    I’m having lunch with Leticia and her husband Gonzalo in an upscale Santiago beef restaurant. I don’t know them very well, but they are friends of a good friend, so I invited them out to show them the city.

    They live in Caracas, passing through Santiago because Gonzalo, a mid-level manager at a multinational, is getting transferred to Chile. They have come to scout the place, to see what their new life will be like.

    Hearing their stories about how difficult life in Caracas has gotten, I decided to invite them out for lunch.

    “Tenderloin – well, you simply can’t find it in Caracas anymore, and when you do, it is prohibitively expensive.”

    I don’t eat tenderloin very often, but I do once in a while. Leticia’s comment surprises me – Gonzalo is an engineer with a multinational, she is a primary school teacher at one of Caracas’ few remaining elite schools. How can two professionals not afford to eat a nice piece of steak once in a while?

    “It’s not just that, it’s everything. Prices of things have skyrocketed. Even if we had the disposable income, we wouldn’t want to go out at night for a nice meal – there are simply other priorities, and the crime makes it a hazardous proposition. We used to go to Lee Hamilton Steak House once in a blue moon, but that was years ago. The only treat we ever give ourselves is to go out to a movie once a month – but in the middle of the afternoon. We don’t want to get caught outside of our homes at night. It’s simply too dangerous.”

    Sure, but at least you have Cadivi, I say. Or at least you used to have it.

    “Used to have it, you got that right. Cadivi is like the Loch Ness monster – people talk about it as if it exists, but nobody’s ever really seen it. At any rate, we haven’t taken a vacation since 2010. A few years ago, we could go to Aruba and Punta Cana with the boys, but now we simply can’t afford it. Sometimes we get paid, and four days later we don’t have anything left. We live hand to mouth.”

    After our meal, Gonzalo tells me they are planning on renting a furnished apartment when the move is finalized. “It’s simply too complicated to furnish our own place. We would have to live out of our suitcases for months,” he says. Leticia chips in, “I want to get my new life going as soon as possible, and I at least need a fridge.”

    I’m a bit baffled by the comment. A fridge? Why, can’t they just buy one? Surely they have a bit of savings for their move.

    Gonzalo tells me the company is giving him some resettlement money, but they can’t afford the wait.

    Wait … “wait”? It dawns on me that they don’t really understand how things work outside of Venezuela.

    We go to the department store, and I feel bad for them when their jaw hits the floor at the variety of refrigerators available, prices ranging from $500 to $5,000. I ask the store attendant how long it takes to get them a refrigerator after they buy it. Embarassed, he says they have a backlog, which means that if they buy it on a Sunday, they can’t deliver before the following Tuesday. If they buy it on a weekday, however, it will be at their home the next day.

    Leticia finally realizes she is going to need to leave her Venezuelan parameters in Maiquetia.

    “Back home,” she tells me, “you need to sign up on a waiting list in order to buy a refrigerator. It usually takes about a month and a half to get here. You have to give them a security deposit, with the understanding that the price will change once the refrigerator actually arrives inside the country. In the end, they charge you whatever price they want. You can get it quicker if you bribe the sales person…”

    They begin to realize their lives will be much different in capitalist, functional Chile. They start opening up some more, and telling me the horror stories of their lives in Venezuela.

    One of the more harrowing tales is that of the cancer medicine for Leticia’s mother – they simply can’t find it. Through some connections in Yaracuy, they managed to get nine vials shipped to them. The bad thing was that the truck where the package was coming got robbed.

    Pretty soon she got the call she was dreading – the thieves were holding her medicine hostage, and they wanted ransom for it. A desperate Leticia called MRW, and the company decided to negotiate with the thieves. In the end, they paid the ransom, but Leticia only got four vials – the rest ending up somewhere in the black market.

    Their professional lives are going nowhere, and most of it has to do with the government.

    “We imported a very specific type of machinery for a client of ours at the beginning of last year,” Gonzalo says. “The thing cost three hundred thousand dollars. But the government decided the equipment was going to be used for spying, and they took it away without compensation. Not only that, they put the three guys in charge of the equipment – all of them engineers – in jail for six months. Now they are out on parole, but they have to go to the police and sign every week, and they cannot leave the country. It’s a terrible tragedy – for the client, for our engineers, and for us. The equipment? It was never returned. That’s why our company is basically shutting down and laying people off. The engineers’ lives are basically ruined since nobody wants to hire an ex-con. I’m extremely lucky to have landed a transfer.”

    They wonder what they will do with the little assets they have. They don’t own real estate since they live in an apartment that belongs to her mother. They have a 2007 Chevy Aveo that is not running because of a lack of spare parts. She mentions a painting she inherited from her father that may be worth something, and a grand piano that lies in the corner of her house collecting dust. The problem is how she can get someone to buy them in dollars.

    She also says she has a small station wagon that she is planning to sell. I ask her how much she wants for it, thinking of my car-less relatives. She says she has a buyer already.

    “The car market is crazy. I always get people asking me about the station wagon on the streets, and the thing is nine years old. It’s also kind of scary when people knock on my window in the middle of traffic to ask me about the car – it’s my daily ‘aquí fué’ moment.”

    Huh?

    “Oh, you don’t know? That’s the latest catch phrase in Caracas, ‘aquí fue’ (Trans: ‘here it happened’), as in ‘here is where they murdered me.’ If you’re at the movies and someone sneaks up behind you and startles you, you think ‘aquí fue.’ If someone suspicious boards the elevator … ‘aquí fue.’ We live in constant fear for our lives, simply … waiting for it.”

    They come to my house for coffee, and they notice the lack of bars on my windows. I explain to them that life in Chile is much different – the country is relatively safe, and you can find anything you need at the store.

    “Really,” Gonzalo says, “that is all I want. I want my kid not to wake up at 3 am asking me for milk, and for me to have to tell him that we don’t have any. I want my kid to be able to go to a park and ride his bike. We’re willing to put up with anything for that little slice of normal.”

    —-

    Leticia and Gonzalo’s story stuck with me for days. As I wondered about the value added in posting it, their place in the larger scheme of things hit me. They are what would pass as lower-middle-class in most rich countries, but they are decidedly upper-middle-class in Venezuela. They have also seen their standard of living deteriorate markedly in the last few years. They are what Quico called a few years ago the hard-up elite.

    Leticia and Gonzalo have lost. The have lost purchasing power, the tranquility of making ends meet, the peace of mind of knowing their lives are not at risk. Their entire existence is clouded by impending doom. “¡Aquí fue!” has become their unwanted companion.

    It is this loss that drives their deep resentment of chavismo, as well as their support for the current protest movement. They know their lives can and should be better – because they’ve had it better before. They understand the deterioration in their standard of living is directly linked to the government.

    But … what have the poor lost?

    The poor stand in line to get basic things, but they have always stood in line – for a jeep to take them to their rancho, for a cédula, for health care, for pretty much anything. The crime wave hits them the hardest, but crime has always been part of their lives. They have always lived hand to mouth.Tarjeta abastecimiento

    The government continues to play with their hopes, feeding a false sense of advancement. That is why Daka was so powerful. That is why the Orwellian “Surefire Availability” digital rationing card is going to be such a hit – people are already raving about how it is going to make life much better for the working poor because now things are going to be available (“It says so right on the card!”).

    The poor are worse off, but many don’t seem to know it yet. I guess that helps explain why they aren’t out in the streets in droves yet – the economic crisis is only just beginning, but they haven’t suffered the worst of it.

    Not so for the thousands of Leticias and Gonzalos trapped inside our major cities, desperate for a way out.

    1 COMMENT

    1. The poor lost the same thing that they have always been losing. That what they never had. A credible path toward not being poor anymore. But if you never knew otherwise and cant really have any hope of doing better…

    2. I’ve been back to Venezuela, for personal reasons, for two years. I’m way better off than the couple with the station wagon because I’m lucky to be earning in US$. We can afford a couple of meals out per week. We invite people over to our apartment almost every week, and we hire someone to cook. We only own one car, though, since I work from home and we don’t need a second one.

      Despite living “nicely”, we are going to move to Texas in less than two months. I got my tarjeta verde last December, and I found a job that will NOT allow us to eat out twice a week (or even twice a month), or hire a chef when people visit. We’ll live que no nos falte nada, pero sin lujos. I’m thinking long-term here. -“What long term?”, says my brother-in-law, “you’re 37 already”. -“My long term is my five year-old, schmuck, I don’t want him to draw the face of Chavez in a school homework, or having to plug himself to the government to make a living when he grows up. That’s my f*%#ing long term”.

      • ”My long term is my five year-old, schmuck, I don’t want him to draw the face of Chavez in a school homework, or having to plug himself to the government to make a living when he grows up. That’s my f*%#ing long term”.

        Amen

      • ”My long term is my five year-old, schmuck, I don’t want him to draw the face of Chavez in a school homework, or having to plug himself to the government to make a living when he grows up. That’s my f*%#ing long term”.
        +1. Congrats on that, dude.

    3. My take Juan on the “Leticia and Gonzalo” story is: first, communication wise, one need to be very careful in presenting these anecdotes. Risking “los ricos tambien lloran” mocking is huge when we enter this territory. To what extend all the audience that will identify and accept this side of the story has been reached already (“preaching to converters”) I don’t know. It might be still a segment of the “devalued” middle class that need to open their eyes, but I suspect there is not a huge chunk.

      I know some hard chavistas that will ridicule me if I stress this Leticia and Gonzalo lament. There is a big challenge to convey what the real problem is behind these sad (and abundant) stories. And I guess this is: the biggest of all problems I have with the chavistas way of seeing the world is the zero-sum ingrained basis for understanding society, economy and pretty much everything else. They seems to think that redistributing oil wealth to the poor will solve all problems. We all have failed to present a clear case for a society where , yes, oil wealth is used to primarily to reduce poverty plus educate all, to create a decent infrastructure, a prime health and social security system while other parts of the economy/government is dedicated to run a more normal society (that that includes a huge middle class, that pay proportional taxes -fair contribution to the financing of the State , with a manageable income distribution – where a top boss earns 5 times of a bottom employee but not ratios of 25 to 1 or so, and a decent amount of goods available for all). We need to make the credible case (offering policies, concrete programs, clear ideas) that another Venezuela is possible, one that resembles many country of similar cultural background, history, etc.. We need to present the case that for the “Leticias and Gonzalos” of this world to have a market where they can buy a fridge or any other good does not imply that poor people cannot have them. On the contrary, that the opposite case is quite possible: a country with a expanding economy (where fridges are available !) could imply expanded employment, more taxes collected, better public services, etc.

      I am getting too long here but, in sum, let us make a clear case that a world with Leticia and Gonzalo having the choices of a modern decent society also mean a world with more choices for all (including more employment for all, less dependence on Papa Estado and its oil)

      • It’s not “los ricos tambien lloran”. Get some perspective.

        Those people aren’t related to the Boultons, Vollmers, Zuloagas, Mendozas, Cisneros, Victor Vargas, Escotet, etc. They don’t own some multinational corporatios, nor do they celebrate their weddings and “sweet 15” in the Casa Esmeralda, those people don’t make the social pages of newspapers, nor is their live chronicled in “Hola Venezuela”.

        Those are people who went to college and got a white collar job. That’s not rich people, that’s middle class.

      • My family back in Venezuela is “lower middle class”. I talk to them weekly and I found nothing wrong or slightly different with Juan “Gonzalo and Leticia” story!

      • That’s why this country is pretty F.U.B.A.R

        Thinking that people who went to college and got a degree is “rich” is just a mainstream idea now. That couple have an old, broken car, have no real estate and de vaina can afford a fridge overseas and they’re rich.

        I cannot possibly imagine what “poor” does mean in this country then.

        • Poor means a $60/month minimum wage at Sicad 2; most are lucky to earn even this. Middle class earning more,like Gonzalo and Leticia, are all poor by developed world world standards.

    4. Juan
      Thanks VERY MUCH for this bit of ethnographyVenezuela. It is a great narrative.

      I should pass it on to Dr. Mark Weisbrot (alas, from my Alma Mater): See his very different take on the situation in Caracas: “The truth about Venezuela: a revolt of the well-off, not a ‘terror campaign’,” in The Guardian.com, Thursday 20 March 2014 .http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/20/venezuela-revolt-truth-not-terror-campaign?commentpage=1

      Unsympathetic to those like your suffering middle-class friends, Mark seems to think it is morally reprehensible for the middle-class to be taking to the streets in Venezuela … (How dare they disturb the civil order when the poor are doing so well! )

      Great post. Thanks, Tom

      • He would have something, not much, of a point if only the poor were doing “so well”. But he can explain to us if he wants why it is morally reprehensible, for example, to protest that your government has done nothing at all to stop the awful rise in violent crime. He can even do it from the comfort of a much, much safer country, and tell people that have suffered “express kidnappings” how they are morally bankrupt.

      • It reminds me of Greg Wilpert laughing at Emiliana for not being able to bake a cake. “Let them eat cookies!” I think it was here

        • Something caught my attention watching Wilpert’s interview. He mentions that a lot of the government jobs have salaries which are ‘indexed’ to inflation. Really? Is that true? Wow. In Econ 101 that is taught as a government action which has the effect of pouring gasoline on a fire. If you think inflation is bad now, just wait a few more months when all of the ‘indexing’ starts to take effect. Hyperinflation here we come….

          • They actually aren’t. Government salaries -except for minimum wage- are adjusted like every 2-4 years.

            The usual drill with civil servants is:
            Year 1: Salary adjusted and is now about right for someone with two years of experience.
            Year 2: Salary remains the same, but they add or increase a monthly bonus that isn’t relevant for severance pay, vacation bonus or Christmas bonus. Overall net monthly income didn’t catch up with inflation.
            Year 3: Salary remains the same, but they increase a monthly bonus that isn’t relevant for severence pay, vacation bonus or christmas bonus. Overall net monthly income didn’t catch up with inflation.
            Year 4: Back to 1.

            In case of public companies, there’s collective bargaining, but each collective agreement is renewed about two years after the date it should have. Kind of like:
            Year 1: After collective bargaining, a collective agreement is approved.
            Year 2: Collective agreement isn’t honored. Negotiations for this year’s collective agreement are stalled.
            Year 3: Year 1’s collective agreement is now honored, and the government starts paying -without interest- the debt from Year 2. Negotiations commence (they should have started and ended in Year 2).
            Year 4: Back to 1.

            Minimum wage doesn’t keep up with inflation. In 15 years of Chavismo, there hasn’t been a single general raise of salaries, only raises in minimum wage that haven’t kept up with inflation. Which has caused minimum wage to creep up on lots of people.

        • Greg would have been right at home in East Germany’s Ministry for State Security. He would have also been a good Nazi. Otro aleman del pasado infiltrado.

    5. For poor and middle class and alike life conditions have made a drastic turn for the worse in the last year , worse for the middle class but the poor have not been left unscathed , the long queues , the shortages , the constantly rising prices , the deteriorating services affect all ,

      The poor have less resources to meet the savage onslaught in living conditions but the govt tries at least in part to cushion the change , still their life conditions are not what they were one year ago , they are clearly worse. and many of them are becoming more and more discontented with whats happening . Its these bread and butter issues that hit the poor not the lofty political freedom and human rights issues which the middle class feels more poignantly than the worse off. Crime for them is always been there so although unhappy about it its not something that moves them as much as the other more basic survival issues.

      The middle class is recieving the brunt of the punishment but no one is getting a free ride , buying a car , traveling abroad , buying or renting a home are now not difficult but achievable goals but privileges.

      Many of them although discontented with the worsening conditions still feel a visceral sentimental and tribal attachment to the Chavista political identity and discourse, they dont feel that the oppo is close to them and their deepest resentments and dreams . Lets not kid ourselves many of them love their sectarian passions , how it makes them feel full of warrior passions against a demonized enemy . Part of the fun that now fills their lives !!

      The strange thing is that this huge worsening in life conditions has made it abundantly clear that the govt does not have the resources it once had to meed the countrys needs and yet the question is never made about why the sudden drop in govt resources , where has all the oil wealth gone , Dont think that people deep down believe that its all the businessmens fault in speculatively rising the prices of goods because so many of these are now provided directly by the govt. and those prices are rising too and the shortages ocurr also in govt run stores .!

      Maybe its true what Borges once wrote: that tyrannies make people stupid so they lose the capacity to judge reality , to see whats in front of their eyes , becoming the slaves of their own ignorant delusions.!! . .

    6. ““We imported a very specific type of machinery for a client of ours at the beginning of last year,” Gonzalo says. “The thing cost three hundred thousand dollars. But the government decided the equipment was going to be used for spying, and they took it away without compensation.”

      Wow, that really lit up my curiosity.

      What piece of equipment was it that set off the alarm bells in the paranoid chavistas?

      Life here has really gotten not so much more expensive (although in Bs. it definitely has) but in the constant search for the things you need & dealing with deteriorating quality of day to day things – water, electric, mail, internet.

      As I try and post this my 2MBS download CANTV ABA account has been averaging 0.05 mbs for the last few weeks. When we report it to CANTV they make us go through 40 minutes of tests before telling us they will report it. Call us in 48 hours if it’s not fixed. We reported it three times now & still nothing.

    7. Maybe as an aside it would be interesting to know how many of those leaving for greener pastures actually voted for Chavez in ’98. He got in with near 60% and that might suggest a number of those on one way tickets created their own fate, or destiny if you prefer.

      Maybe there are those who exercised judgment and voted against Chavez and can’t get out. And then there are those who failed in their evaluation but choose now to get out because they can.

      Not pointing fingers but I suppose it’s the way of the world. Someone always pays for others screw ups.

      • It’s not about pointing fingers, it’s about the importance of accountability which has gone missing in Venezuela.

        I have noticed quite a few Chavistas and Chavez apologists escape to the US or elsewhere, instead of staying and cleaning up the mess they produced with their irresponsibility. Accountability is the Elephant in the room always in Venezuela.

        By the same token many who were always against the regime are stuck and cannot get out.

        Then there are the many who stay though they do not like the regime, but they hate guarimbas and protests because they are earning easy money and guarimbas are changing that a bit .All of these idiots will pay some day.Karma exists and it has started.

        To all the Chavistas in the US hiding out…..you are not welcome here.

        And for those who keep insisting they represent the moral high ground …KEEP DREAMING.

        • Dear Firepiggette,
          You have touched a nerve. I know 4 middle class firebrand chavistas, recently resettled in Canada, who NEVER accepted having been wrong, NEVER deigned to vote for the opposition. These people just took their final DUMP and took off wrapped in their own putrid arrogance.

        • “To all the Chavistas in the US hiding out…..you are not welcome here.”…But they are there, living the “American Dream” with the stolen Venezuelan money without any regret …

      • You can’t blame someone for trying to get rid of a corrupt political system by voting for a candidate that is a very gifted speaker and seems to be sincere about changing things for the better.
        My wife is from the upper middle class in Honduras and she really believed Zelaya was for real. He promised to fight crime and create jobs to change the status quo. He started out fine but then Chavez with his dollars and promise of power proved him to be a con artist. He got blinded by the Castro lovers that would say ” you have to admire someone who has been able to stay in power for 50yrs.”

        • “You can’t blame someone for trying to get rid of a corrupt political system by voting for a candidate that is a very gifted speaker and seems to be sincere about changing things for the better.
          My wife is from the upper middle class in Honduras and she really believed Zelaya was for real.”

          You can and should point fingers at them. Your wife, as an upper middle class woman, had the moral responsibility and all the means available in the world to know one thing or two about communism, socialism, marxism, dictatorhips. Sorry, but if she didn’t really have the ill intent (“It’s time to eat the rich!”), she can at least be blamed for being irresponsible and seeing elections as some sort of child’s play.

          I have people like that in my family too, and I tell them that they are lazy and ignorant about politics, and I also advert them that if the country we live ever goes to hell, I will blame them for the eternity. Sorry, but if you support Zelaya, Maduro, Stalin or Hitler, you are a cohort.

          “It’s not about pointing fingers, it’s about the importance of accountability which has gone missing in Venezuela.”

          Many many people writing blogs such as this one, which are blog that we enjoy so much, voted for Chávez. Some admit it, some don’t. But it’s easy to separate the husk from the grain if you read their old articles dating back to 2003, 2004, 2004, when they weren’t that ashamed.

          • Marc, sorry I didn’t make things clear. Mel Zelaya is(was) a business man and land owner. There was no sign of him instigating class warfare when he was running for president. He changed towards the end of his term when because of the Honduran constitution he couldn’t be re-elected. He became sick with power same as Chavez. He and Chavez became buddies and Chavez showed him the light on how to stay in power. Zelaya tried but he couldn’t pay off enough people in time to back him up. Everyone knows the money came from Venezuela. Juan asked in another article “where have all the dollars gone” Put Mel Zelaya and his party Libre on the list.
            Zelaya actually started too late in his term to pull it off. No one saw this coming.

            • Similar to Ortega. In countries as small as Honduras and Nicaragua, a slush fund of several billion dollars to use however they see fit practically gaurantees Chavismo benefactors the ability to get re-elected (assuming it’s not against their constitution). This is what Chavismo gave to those rulers.

              Predictably enough, Ortega has turned to the Chinese since no more money is forthcoming from Venezuela to sustain his reign. In return they get to build the new canal and pillage whatever natural resources they find.

      • You’re forgetting a large sector of venezuelan middle and lower class, Gen-Yers. We were not old enough to vote against Chávez, not until 2002-2006.

        When most of us entered the workforce our hard-earned money was worth nothing, we worked mainly to accumulate the job experience and skills to get the hell out of the country, most times without even a car to sell and transform into black market dollars.

    8. I’m curious about their personal backgrounds. I don’t know if this is true, but from what I understand, something that has been different in Venezuela compared to Chile, Peru or much of the rest of Latin America is that it has historically had more intergenerational class mobility. That matters to a story like this. In Chile, hurting “the rich” is mostly a matter of hurting a permanent, rather closed-off caste of wealthy families. This isn’t to say it’s bad or good. But in a place with more mobility, hurting “the rich” has a broader effect.

      • I didn’t ask them what their background was specifically, but they didn’t seem like they were born with a silver spoon. Third-generation middle class, perhaps?

    9. My family hasn’t been hit that hard, and we don’t live in Caracas; but their plight is similar to what most middle class Venezuelans get through. The government has spent years for something like this to happen, it shouldn’t be a surprise. I beg to differ with your argument of the poor however. I don’t think they are going to take the card and say “NOW we are better off”. Maybe in the short term, but on the long term they are not.

      • It’s not thatr they think NOW they are better off. It’s that the government is constantly telling them to hang in there, there’s something good coming their way. That’s how they play with their expectations.

        There’s a lot of elderly people “hanging in there” waiting for misión en amor mayor (which seems to have stalled to a halt, since I haven’t seen any new listings), there are a lot of people “hanging in there” waiting for Misión Vivienda to come through, and lots of people working as substitute teachers “hanging in there” until they get a full-time job, lots of outsourced government workers “hanging in there” until they are hired by the government and start getting benefits, etc.

    10. As I say, it’s not that prices have skyrocketed. Prices in Venezuela are about the same as in other countries (at black market rates of course). It’s the salaries, those have plummeted.

      For instance, in a small restaurant, targeted at white collar workers having lunch during the week, a complete meal costs about VEF 100-130 (in a soup, meal, drink combo) which is worth about USD 1.50-2.00; a nice sushi roll plus drinks can set you back VEF 300-400 which is worth about USD 6.00; a nice meal at a kind if fancy place (think paella in la candelaria, or something trendy in los palos grandes) can go up to VEF 1000+ per person which is worth about USD 15+.

      I’ve been abroad to Europe, the US and Latin America and those are the kind of prices I saw, in fact Venezuela might be on the cheap side, since there’s hardly any places with meals priced at USD 20 or 40 as I found in other countries.

      Let’s look at salaries. Monthly minimum wage (VEF 3270) is about USD 50, with the food bonus it may go up to VEF 4000 or about USD 60. The poverty line for developed countries is USD 2 a day (below that you’re talking extreme poverty). A fresh out of college engineer makes about VEF 7000-8000 or USD 120, an engineer with 2 years of experience might be getting VEF 12000 or USD 180 and an experienced engineer doing (senior) consulting work or working as project manager can make VEF 20,000 or about USD 300. Some companies, like Polar, have a higher salary scale, but it’s maybe about twice the numbers above, nothing on par with salaries abroad.

      As a comparison point. The monthly minimum wage in Colombia is COP 616,000, if Colombian workers trade their minimum wage in Cucuta, at the border rate of COP 30 = VEF 1, they get VEF 20,533.33 (what a highly ranked Venezuelan engineer expects to earn in a month).

      A common talking point from the government is that we shouldn’t convert salaries using the black market rate or even the SICAD 2 rate, because the official rate and the SICAD 1 rate are the most widely used. However, not everyone is able to take advantage of government subsidies. In my family, nobody can go to the supermarket every day at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning to stand in line at the supermarket in the hopes of getting price-regulated staples or to spend 4-5 hours in a Mercal, because we have jobs to go to, so we end up getting Splenda instead of sugar, the “premium” version of rice, pasta and cornflour instead of the regular one, thus incurring in much larger costs; relatives with small children have to get powdered milk and other items from resellers at a much higher markup. We don’t qualify for Misión Vivienda, Madres del Barrio, Hijos de la Patria, Cédula del Buen Vivir (credit card with lower interest rates), etc. We used to be able to use Misión Cadivi, but airplane tickets are no longer affordable and very scarce. Right now, the only misión we could take advantage of is misión cheap gas, alas we don’t own a car so there’s that.

      On the other hand, the middle class has a lot of self-imposed expenses caused by government incompetence. Since I’m not willing to squat in some shanty house to deal with the housing shortage, I’m paying almost VEF 3000 a month (almost a minimum wage) renting a room. People with kids aren’t willing to put them in public schools with all the unchecked violence, and the risks that they may lose an entire year of math/physics/chemistry education because the school doesn’t have any. Middle class neighborhoods feel they absolutely must hire watchmen to prevent robberies and kidnappings. Hanging out at malls instead of parks and plazas, due to the insecurity, means there’s a lot more consumer impulses and also that drinks and foodstuffs are more expensive. Families have to spend a lot of money securing their cars and homes (I bet you’ve hardly seen electrified fences or barbwire in middle class neighborhoods abroad).

      • Great comment, J. Navarro – and *that* is why government statistics on the plummetting poverty rate need to be taken with a grain of salt. If the minimum to be out of poverty is to earn 2 USD per day, and you translate it using the official rate, it translates into VEF 13 per day, and well, sure, then there are few people who are poor in Venezuela. The problem is that 6.3 per dollar is fictional. The only reason they keep it is to point to it when calculting the myriad of statistics that support their points.

        • I really don’t understand why the opposition has not been hammering more effectively about the purchasing power across time and space.

          This method is used all the time in German books and newspapers and the 5-minute part of the general 9 pm news on ZDF or 8 pm on ARD (public channels):

          Chart with
          Worker needed
          for 1949 1955 1960 1990 2000 2010
          1 kg meat X min Y min …
          1 ticket for the cinema
          1 bike
          1 car
          rent for 80 m2 flat
          They can produce the same figure but instead of putting dates, they can put countries.
          This is something a person with 2 years of primary school from Guacara can perfectly understand.

          This is the kind of flyers we could be distributing along the Bicentenario queues.

          As Juan knows, I am trying to produce the second type of chart but I am busy with other things as well.
          Our politicians should have a team doing that. It is not that hard

        • Juan,

          In fact, I think there is manipulation, but is much subtle than that. Since the national poverty line is defined in local currency, what matter is how you define the poverty line and how you review that line year after year. Exchange controls do play a role in overestimating drops in poverty rates, but I guess INE is doing his fudging in a more subtle way:

          -Trough the years they have changed the brands and quantities of the items on that normative basket (canasta alimentaria) that defines the poverty line, apparently for no technical reason.

          -The result is a basket with an overrepresentation of goods and services that are under price controls and are sold by officially own channels like Mercal and Pdval.

          -In calculating the value of the basket, they are taking face value the controlled prices of those items, disregarding scarcity issues and price of competitors. The effect of exchage rate controls is there, of course, but is rather indirect. Last time I checked inflation of the poverty line in Venezuela was much, much lower that headline inflation figures.

        • Part of the problem of making these calculations is that there are very many direct and indirect very heavy govt subsidies lowering the prices of inumerable items , the price of gasoline for example and of fertilizer and of public utilities , of many medicines and ordinary stapples, which distort the result even while ultimately they make the economy a chaotic mess. I suspect that these subsidies have disrruptive consequences that end up by raising the overall the cost of living of an ordinary Venezuelan.!!

        • As far as I know, in Venezuela, the critical poverty line is officially defined by an income equivalent of the cost of a minimally balanced nutrition, and the non critical poverty line is defined as double the critical poverty line.

        • Actually, that is the poverty line designed by the World Bank to carry out international comparisons. Each country has a specific poverty line in local currency calculated with data theoretically obtained from households surveys data.

      • What chavistas don’t want to understand is that time is money. Time wasted on a line is money. Ask any cab driver. So, you are paying black-market rates, one way or another.

        • Sure. The thing is not everyone prices their time at the same rate.

          Therefore poorer folks to do a partial payment of their groceries with their time, while lower middle class and above folks use their time to make money and pay their groceries at a higher price.

          The thing is neither group is able to afford groceries properly. Some poor folks have to wake up really early (3:00 or 4:00 in the morning) to be able to use Mercal, which deprives them of proper sleep and the ability to be productive at their jobs (hurting the economy) or even to hold to a proper job (further keeping them in the informal economy). People from the lower middle class and above have been increasingly resorting to credit cards to make ends meet, and paying them off with the christmas bonus or odd jobs (tigritos).

    11. Soon enough the acid test for all the propaganda spited out by the regime will be, like in Cuba, why if everything is so rosy, do mothers risk their children;s lives in hand made rafts to cross the sea to (Miami) aruba, curazao, etc. …

      IMO the Colombian border will also become a hot spot.

      BTW juan, your story is so sad. And true.
      It takes a few years to detox from the “adecuacion” that people develop once they emigrate and settle in normal places. the whole psychological dimension to the Chavista experiment is definitely prime case study material.

    12. this article sounds a little “too bad to be true” to me… there are several points that raised my attention but one in particular about “not being able to travel to aruba since 2010…” everybody knows the good deal that traveling was with Cadivi, where you would actually make a profit out of your vacation (receiving $5,000 dollars for both parents; spending $2,500 – $3,000 in hotel and expenses for one week in Florida and then selling the rest at a black market rate via a “raspacupo”… or merely selling the part that you get in cash and cash advances from your credit card…

      also the stories about kidnapped vials and the whole story about the authorities taking imported machinery under syping suspicious is something a bit of extreme even for Venezuela… but maybe i am being too naive i dont know…

      • The CADIVI cupo viajero for the ABC islands and Colombia was adjusted to USD 300 for up to 3 days, USD 500 from 4 up to 7 days and, USD 700 for 8 days or more. There isn’t much room for raspar cupo under those conditions.

        Some other destinations remain profitable. But you need to have enough money for the air tickets and enough VEF to get the USD.

      • As far as the spying thing goes… a related anecdote:

        My brother-in-law has a business manufacturing replacement parts or remanufacturing broken machinery to make them functional. The guy is basically MacGyver as he can pretty much fix anything with duct tape, a chewing gum wrapper and a paper clip. I’ve helped him with finance and capitalization, but every so often, he needs some specialized tools that simply aren’t available in Venezuela so I will usually track them down and arrange the shipment to him. The last time I had to ship him something, was last fall when he needed a spectrophotometer, a magnetometer and some high end digital calipers to replace a set that was stolen from him.

        The shipment never made it to him. It was held for “security” concerns and, in that way that is so encouraging to businesses in Venezuela, further inquiries on our part as to what was needed to rectify the situation were stonewalled. The two meters were so specialized that we couldn’t ever figure out who or what might need them and no trace of them was ever seen again. However, about two weeks after the shipment disappeared, the exact same model of calipers showed up on mercadolibre. Coincidence?

        I finally bought him another set and sent it with someone who was going to Caracas, had a family member there pick it up and transfer it to Valencia where he went from Merida to pick it up. All told, the delays in getting stuff there from initial transaction of the first set to receipt of the second was 6-7 weeks. It created huge backlogs for him and quite a bit of lost revenue to forgone projects, not to mention the additional cost of replacing things twice.

        I’ve heard people wonder why Venezuelan productivity is down and nothing is domestically produced. The government has created so much bureaucracy and corruption (even moreso than existed before) that nothing can be done; it is literally a hostile environment to work and create, let alone expand and grow.

    13. ““Really,” Gonzalo says, “that is all I want. I want my kid not to wake up at 3 am asking me for milk, and for me to have to tell him that we don’t have any. I want my kid to be able to go to a park and ride his bike. We’re willing to put up with anything for that little slice of normal.””

      Reading things like that only reassure me that human beings are intrinsically capitalist, and that nothing in this world will ever change that! At the end of day, we will always be more concerned about ourselves and our offspring than with subjective concepts such as “homeland”, “proletariate”, “Chavismo”, “collective” etc.

      A government that messes up the economy forcing a father to tell a son that he can’t have milk at 3am can only remain in power by violent means. And that’s exactly what’s taking place in Venezuela.

      “But … what have the poor lost? The poor stand in line to get basic things, but they have always stood in line – for a jeep to take them to their rancho, for a cédula, for health care, for pretty much anything. The crime wave hits them the hardest, but crime has always been part of their lives. They have always lived hand to mouth.”

      That’s right, but can we agree that the poor are more ignorant than chavista?
      Had these same poor people tasted for 5 minutes how their lives would be if they were living Chile they would never return to Venezuela either!!! That’s how “sincere” their love for the revolution is.

      It may not be very clear at first look, but Leticia’s and Gonzalo’s aspirations and feelings are not different from those of the people living in Petare and 23 de Enero at. All those people just want a better life for themselves and their loved ones. And if we want to defeat Maduro, we must understand that.

    14. I am quite impressed at the number of well-off acquaintances -I’ve heard- are leaving the country in the next couple months. Miami, Santiago, Panama are some of their destinies.
      I’m actually talking of people that 2 or 3 years ago would never consider taking the risk of starting somewhere else and were still actually doing OK if not well. In a matter of 3 years, apparently the situation has gone to hell.

      • And the Chavista response to all of that would be: …”Leaving? We OUR 50%, we have the piggy bank, we have the generals, we have the courts, and on and on. Why the hell should we care? If the OTHER 50% leaves, the more for US!” That’s kinda how the thinking goes….

    15. Congratulations Juan, this piece is beautifully written.

      First of all it reminded me of so many similar stories my relatives tell me from the UP era. True story, my grandma had a fork scar in her hand. In late 1972 she went to a wedding and miraculously the dinner buffet had meat in it. People freaked out so much, they jumped all over the table and someone pinched my Oma’s hand so hard it left her a mark for life. Needless to say she left without having one bit of the beef.

      Anyhow, what I wanted to say is that as soon as I read the piece I expected to read criticism or some comment regarding the fact that Leticia and husband are not poor and so on and so forth. In my opinion this “pobrismo”, as someone smartly named glorification of poverty we`ve veen observing for the past decade in the ALBA countries is one of the worse legacies of Chavismo and friends. This line of thought has become so pervasive that what I consider to be sensible politicians are terrified of speaking their minds, they’re all trying to “out-populist” the other. I’m all for a State fullfiing its redistributive duties and leveling the field in order to provide opportunities as equal as possible. However, what we are seeing is a humongous incompetent State handing out cash transfers that have created an army of people relying on the goodwill of the government, while demonizing the rest of the society.

      So far, relevant information tells me that social inclusion has only been symbolic, people are no longer “damnificados”, they are “dignificados”, cartoneros have become “recuperadores urbanos”, but at the end of the day they’re still poor and failing to make their ends meet. And in way they are living off the promise of a better future, but on the other hand when they demonize the non-poor they rob them of their cappacity to aspire. Bottom line is that such future will not come as long as Chavismo is in power. It simply is not in their best interest, period.

      On the other side we have the middle clase and well since are not starving they should not complain. Bullshit I say, since when they’re less of a citizen than the poor? As far as I’m concerned being a citizen involves having social, political and civil rights. We’re all equally entitled to have a dignified life, income level aside. In the middle of this discourse the value of hard work and individual effort has been lost. Of course that those of us who are not poor are privileged, we were partially lucky for being born in educated families with steady income. The key word is partially, because many of us grew up seeing our parents long very long hours to provide a decent life for us.

      I am rambling I know, but this issue really pisses me off. The fact that Venezuela has become a non-state is so painful for me to see. I love that contry so much. Reading stories like this one saddens me very much. I have almost no friends left over there, they are all gone, because either they got fed up of being robbed at gun point or they fail to see a viable future for the country…

      • Caterina, good thoughts, but I’d like to point out a small distinction which may have a big effect on some inferences. When you mention, the State handing out cash transfers, be sure to note that the State handouts are not always cash, and certainly not unconditional: it is buying servitude. The reason I point this out is that it may lead you to conclude that any handout or any cash transfer is a bad thing. Wouldn’t a cash transfer help Leticia and her husband? Wouldn’t they know how to spend that cash in a more effective way for their life improvement than how any government official may decide to spend it for them?

        You see, if the government were to distribute the same amount to Leticia as to her husband, as to every citizen, then the field gets raised for everyone, fairly. Obviously, 2000USD per yer would be 0% to a Cisneros, but it would be lifesaving for someone in critical poverty, and quite useful to a Leticia and to her husband. To each citizen it may represent a different percentage, but by being the same amount, it would be fair. And it should not be in exchange for servitude; it should be a citizen right, for all citizens, equally. As the Leticias succeed financially, the cash transfer would mean less and less to her total income, but if she ever falls into hard times, the cash transfer would become a huge safety net, for her and her husband and their children.

        Businesses would start targeting their goods and services to the citizens because that’s where the money would be. As it is now, businesses spend their time looking for corruption or administrative shortcuts in government, because that’s where the money is. Suddenly businesses would be competing to attract Leticia as a buyer. Citizens would not only control the nation’s money, they would control the market’s attention.

        This is the way to end the ills from the petro-state, while getting *all* citizens a bonus income greater than that defined by the poverty line.

        • Thanks for your comments.

          Yes of course, there are different type of transfers, they can be in cash or in especie (I always forget how to say it in English). Many countries in our region have massive social programs of conditional cash transfers, the most famous being Bolsa Familia from Brazil, which has played a large role in reducing both poverty and indigency in Brazil.

          I justs want to clarify that on principle I am not opposed to government transfers or subsidies. They have been proven to have a significative effect in poverty reduction strategies. My problem is when the State fails to provide the tools a person needs to become independent from governmental help, such as decent education, healthcare, and social security to name the most important ones. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in Venezuela and in Argentina to a lesser extent.

          We could even agree that giving every single Venezuelan a fixed income just for being born there is justifiable (Beveridge vs Bismark social protection schemes is an extremely long discussion completely beyond the scope of my comment). However, people will still need an education, healthcare, housing, etc, etc. I don’ want to get to wonky with this stuff, but bottom line is, Chavismo is not providing the tools for people to expand their choices, ie, is not increasing people’s capacities to lead lives they value (Sen’s definition of development).

      • Great Comment Caterina . time someone brought down this syrupy glorification of the victims of poverty as investing them with some kind of super natural nobility and goodness which really doenst exist more than it exists among people in more fortunate circumnstances . Poverty doenst make anyone better , rather the opposite. because the miseries of poverty often prevent or marr the personal development of those which suffer under it. Thats one of the reasons to hate poverty rather than idealize it .!!

        There was a documentry made about Bunuels movie Los Olvidados (which deals with the life of the poor in Mexico City and which portrays the poor not as lovely souled and goody goody but as capable of rapacious and cruel behaviour ) A film which at the time caused a great outcry in Mexico where people were more accostumed to the sentimental depiction of the poor in Cantinflas films.

        In that documentary Bunuel says that poverty doenst make people good and that neither does wealth but that the latter allow some people to scape from the development of the worse of human miseries . !! Thats a line which Ive found hard to forget.!!
        .

    16. My work too me to Venezuela a number of years ago. In no time I felt at ease and began to explore – from the Andes to the Orinoco, Amazonas to Los Roques. My memories of walking through the rainforest, on the water with Warao, waking up to the sight of Angel Falls on the Caroni and fly fishing on the finest bone fishing waters in the world still make me smile today.

      Truly a beautiful country and I was happy, who wouldn’t be ? Well quite a number in fact.

      I spent a lot of time with all social classes of society in Venezuela, and I did. But there was a certain large mobile and consumer “group” for whom Venezuela was just one big mess.
      “Miami is wonderful because…in Florida they are half the price………and in Spain you can………and their beaches are so clean…….and the food……”
      And these Venezuelans meant what they said. Being non Venezuelan, Latino neither, I was taken aback by the lack of connection to their country.
      In fact I ended up defending the Venezuelan beaches, the food, the sights and opportunities and thought how wrong is this, no happy ending here. I stopped short of telling them how good this country had been to their families but this large group seemed uninterested in their country’s development. Then along came Chavez.

      I’ m not suggesting everyone fell in to this category but an awful lot did. And now they are in Spain, Miami and Chile it seems.

      When I read this article it reminded me of those frustrating days.

    17. “Miami is wonderful because…in Florida they are half the price………and in Spain you can………and their beaches are so clean…….and the food……”

      “And these Venezuelans meant what they said. Being non Venezuelan, Latino neither, I was taken aback by the lack of connection to their country.”

      “I’ m not suggesting everyone fell in to this category but an awful lot did. And now they are in Spain, Miami and Chile it seems.”

      The paradox of the revolution: although the government had tried copiously to put the better off down, I bet that most of them are living the best time of their lives in places like Miami, Spain or Chile. hahahaha! And Maduro simply can’t do a thing to break their spirit. I can tell for myself: if I had to live in exile in Europe, it would obviously be great for me since I love Europe. I would certainly feel very sorry for my country and compatriots, but life must go on. In a couple years, I would probably not even want to return to my homeland anymore. It’s hard to adapt to worst places, but it’s extremely easy to adapt to better places.

      In the end, this “lack of connection with Venezuela” which you refer to worked as a defense mechanism and helped these people overcoming a very harsh situation. Yes, it was good for them to be “disconnected”.

      • I have to disagree with you Marc, after 5+ years living in a developed country my connection with Venezuela is even stronger than when I was living there. True, here I’ve been able to access opportunities I would never ever!! had dreamed to have in my country. My professional career has benefited from the move to new shores…. But my inner angry has grown scarily.
        It amazes me how a country like Venezuela is being ruined by a bunch of commies stuck in the 60’s (elected by MY VERY OWN MIDDLE CLASS) and a group of narco-generals that are trying to make Venezuela a sort of tropicalized version of North Korea.

        It saddens me that all my friends are scattered across the globe, but above all that my daughter is not going to have their grandparents close as in any normal country in the world. Those Venezuelans you refer to are the very same who with infinite stupidity and ignorance voted for Chavez back in 1998 (the original sin…) because they wanted to get rid of “la cuarta” and followed the back then fashionable anti-politics. These people, not even when they lived in Venezuela cared about the country, they cared about themselves. Sadly, I’ve known many of them… both in and out of Venezuela.

        Is not a defence mechanism, is just they doesn’t care at all.

      • MO, I talked to a prominent inheritance lawyer recently, and she thinks this law wont fly, since “everybody in the Asamblea would be affected.” time will tell….

        • Consistent application of the law has never been a Chavista attribute. Like they say, “Para mis amigos todo. Para mis enemigos, la ley.”

    18. A nice piece of writing Juan (as usual), very sad, the economic crisis here is killing for middle class and poor people. It is unbelievable that we are in this situation with all this oil. The tenderloin story is a shock.

      In spite of the fact that many people are leaving, it still amazes me the huge amount of excellent-educated people who are here working for a change, people doing extraordinary things everyday that sometimes don´t get enough publicity. People that due to their efforts (in medicine, academia, education, arts, etc) to build a civilized society bring a breath of fresh air. Because of the activities that I do, I have the privilege of making contact with some of them across the country, and it´s rewarding, specially in these difficult days.

      The human mind is strange, why on earth to stay in this social-economic mess? and I am referring to people who have lived or obtained degrees abroad (master, PhD), multilingual, with EU or US passports, professional experience, those are the ones who I am talking about. Venezuela is difficult to leave, you all expats know that. That is why this blog is so popular.

      It is sure that if things continue deteriorating many more will leave, perhaps it doesn´t worth it (to stay), life is too short, probably it´s just delaying the inevitable, probably next time I will write from abroad because I couldn´t make it any more…

      But who knows right? Maybe one day, in near future, the news will report that in a general election the opposition got the victory, meaning a change in government. That would be a wonderful day, a day that all of us would like to spend in Venezuela, just to live that moment; to dream is free. We all know that the opportunity to change the country for better lies on chavismo’s exit from power.

      May be that dreaming is a powerful answer, linked to hope, every time I discuss this with people like the ones I am referring to, we conclude the same: we need to do more, to work harder, to be more creative, to make differences in our professional areas because we think of that day, we want that day.

      R

    19. I am curious, if the poor are more less “just as poor” and the wealthier are poorer than they were before, where is the wealth going? It’s not like wealth just magically disappears, it only gets transferred. Who is receiving the wealth now? I haven’t heard any stories about government officials driving around in a fleet of Bentley’s or anything like that.

          • My business spanish is not so good (okay, non-existent) so I’m not clear on what the import/export charts here are saying. Is it fair to assume that they are saying Venezuela is not importing as much now as it did two years ago? Without seeing GDP #’s, I can’t tell whether that matters (local production can offset imports), but either way, that wouldn’t result in a wealth change like we are talking about here. It could result in inflation (again depending on local production), but inflation isn’t enough to describe what’s happening here. The article ends with,

            “Which only leads to the question Luis Herrera used to ask: ¿Donde están los reales? (Where is the money?) I have absolutely no idea, it may not even exist…”

            So I am still wondering the same thing…

            • John Blaise Lent, exactly. No amount of number crunching adds up. What we have is signs that the money is not available, I dare guess, given away to foreign “revolution” friendly groups.

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