A grim goodbye

La Guaira
Kind of like this, but without the ship in the horizon

I left Venezuela yesterday after spending ten days there. I have tons of things I want to write about once I get my thoughts in order, but one particular thing stuck with me. It happened to be the last thing I saw of our country.

As I was taking off from a barren, deserted Maiquetía (more on that later), I looked down on the port of La Guaira. Normally, the port is a chaotic mess, with ships docking, and others waiting for days on end for their papwerwork to clear (and by paperwork I mean “bribes”) in order to unload their cargo.

This time, the port was lonely. No ships docked. No ships waiting to leave. No ships waiting to come in.

Scarcity in Venezuela is an issue, but to me it’s not the issue. The issue is how little regular Venezuelans, stuck in the morass, comprehend the level of insanity they are under, and the level of crazy that’s about to hit them.

Think about it – how does the average salary in Venezuela compare to those in other countries?

Well, it all depends on what exchange rate you use. If you use the official 6.3 rate, we’re doing fine. If you use the black market rate of 560-something, then we are dirt poor.

The story is the same when you use the purchasing power of certain goods. A monthly minimum wage in Venezuela buys you about 7 kilos of grapes (sticker price: BsF 1,150 per kilo when I checked), or it buys you 42 kilos of beef (“fair” price: Bs. 180 per kilo, although when I checked there was no beef), or better still, 2,500 tanks of gasoline.

Ultimately, Venezuelans are global consumers, so the price of your salary has to be compared to an international standard, one that is market bassed, one that requires using some sort of exchange rate, presumably a market one. In that regard, Venezuelans’ purchasing power has collapsed dramatically.

Yet you walk around and people are still going about their business. Stewardesses do their job seemingly pretending as if they’re middle class. People waiting tables, or cleaning the streets, do theirs as if their salaries actually bought them stuff. Managers go about their day thinking they are upper middle class.

Sure, they complain about the cost of living, and they complain about not being able to find basic staples. But I got the feeling that Venezuelans living at home haven’t fully processed just how screwed up the country is, and how dramatically their purchasing power has collapsed.

Part of this is caused by basic economic and civic ignorance, but a lot of it comes from the government’s incessant attack on relative prices. Because, when nobody knows what things cost anymore, when you have no benchmarks with which to compare your earnings, you become less aware of how much you’re suffering.

I guess it serves to dull the pain a bit. That is why the government will keep it up as long as they need to, and as long as they can afford this charade.

It won’t be long until the charade is over.