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.”
“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.
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.