Santa Bárbara

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    SantaBIt’s 6:30 PM, and it’s already pitch dark in Maracaibo, courtesy of Hugo Chávez’s tantrum that led to a change in the time zone a few years back.

    I’m having dinner with an old high school friend at the shore of the lake. The warm, humid July breeze brings with it a mixture of dust and nostalgia. We’re only beginning to dig into our tequeños – con salsa de tomate, of course – when another friend, Horacio, walks in. I haven’t seen Horacio in at least seven years.

    Horacio settles in, and in typical maracucho dicharachero mood, you can’t get him to shut up.

    His family has had land in Santa Bárbara, south of the lake, for as long as I can remember. Horacio has now taken over the farm. I ask him how that’s going.

    Verga, loco, machete.”

    I’m a bit astonished. I was expecting him to rant about how he’s doing terribly, how you can’t survive in an environment like this, how this regime is destroying everything his family worked for. Machete, maracucho slang for “awesome” … that, I was not expecting.

    I ask him for more.

    “Well, the banks are desperate to give loans out. The government forces them to give loans to agricultural businesses at preferential rates, so I’ve taken advantage because, well, I’m one of the few businesses still willing to invest in the region. The interest rate is peanuts – something like 15% on average – so what I do is invest in equipment and machinery. When I use it up, I sell it for much more than what I paid for. My loans are basically disappearing from my accounting books, courtesy of inflation.”

    But, wait, I insist. What about crime? What about price controls?

    “Price controls are a nuisance, for sure, but I still make a profit by being judicious with my costs. And the government understands that if the few of us who produce milk and beef go away, then they’re screwed. They’re letting us be for the moment.”

    “As for crime, you won’t believe this but it has actually gone down.”

    How is that, I ask.

    “I have a buddy who works with the National Guard, and they tell him that the reason there was so much crime was because both our soldiers and the FARC were heavily invested in the drug trade. Now, some of the same folks tell him that it’s not worth it. As they say, ‘Drugs? The return is perhaps 500%, the thing is illegal, and I have to sell it in fucking Holland. It’s much easier to smuggle gasoline. The returns are something like 10,000%, it’s perfectly legal, and all I have to do is cross the border to sell the stuff.'”

    “So what’s happened is that drugs are being replaced by the gasoline trade, which is much more lucrative, and much less dangerous.”

    That’s insane, I say. But … what about land holdings? Didn’t the government seize a bunch of farms a few years ago? I remember a scandal a few years ago when the government decided to take some of the best land in the region and gave it to some Russians to grow plantain bananas.

    “Oh, no, the Russians are gone. In fact, nobody talks about this, but the government actually gave most of the land it seized back to their owners. They realized that they were killing agriculture in the region. A turning point was when old man Chucho Meleán refused to be expropriated, and forced Chávez to negotiate.”

    “The government realized that people in Santa Bárbara were not going to simply wither away. You can’t simply give away the best land in the country to a bunch of peasants or Russians who have no capital or no knowledge about how to run these farms to make them productive. We’ve been there forever, we know what to do  with the land. So the campesinos themselves asked the government to return the land to us.”

    I’m astonished.

    “Still, there are a lot of problems. The entire region is immersed in smuggling, so labor is hard to find. The other day, one of my employees asked me if he could buy one of my tractors. He gave me a wad of cash, and drove it across the border through some dirt roads. As in … he drove the tractor across the border, at something like 20 kilometers per hour. He told me he could sell it across the border, change the money into dolars, and make a killing.”

    The conversation drifts away into other stuff – what our other friends are doing, who’s divorced, who’s left the country, the typical. As we finish up, I think about the guy driving the tractor across the border, and about the bank giving away loans at below cost, and I think about how there’s always a way to make a living in a distorted economy as long as you make sure you’re not on the losing end.

    1 COMMENT

      • He paid Bolivares for it, sold it for Pesos Colombianos (probably for less than it was worth), waited a few days, sold the Pesos to get more Bolivares than he had in the first place.

        No agriculture needed.

      • Well, I didn’t audit his financials, but as I understood it, he’s investing and growing and keeping his farm afloat. He’s no bachaquero.

          • in other words, Juancho’s friend is into indirect bachaquerismo. Btw, how far is the farm from the border, on the road that the tractor driver took?

    1. verga, loco, machete! That made my day.

      “…there’s always a way to make a living in a distorted economy as long as you make sure you’re not on the losing end.”

      Springsteen couldn’t say it better in his song Atlantic CIty:

      “Now I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find
      Down here it’s just winners and losers and
      Don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line

      Well I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end
      So honey last night I met this guy and I’m
      Gonna do a little favor for him…”

    2. Mr. Nagel, the top 1% will always tell you that it is all going “machetisimo” I grew up in Santa Barbara in one of those latifundios and left in 1975. If you take the time to talk to the 95% you will get a very different view. The hustle is intense and all consuming. It takes a very special 1 percenter to make it. I am happy for your friend. I am also happy to know that the expropriation orgy has ceased. God bless good old Chucho Melean.

      I still would not want to come back. You see, the reason is that I have heard that you still need to be “a macho de pelo en pecho y remolino en el culo” to get any respect. No, maricones welcome. In that regard, it is still 1945.

      God bless.

    3. “..what I do is invest in equipment and machinery…”

      Where is he buying it? Let alone the spare parts to keep it going. I was in Santa Barbara a couple of months ago and the agricultural machinery dealers were empty, the fields littered with broken-down tractors and other equipment.

      • One of the major agricultural machinery/parts importer/dealers to the Govt., known personally by me, left Venezuela some years ago for lack of business.

        • I imported heavy equipment parts to Venezuela or exported to Venezuela from Miami for over 20 years.

          Not anymore. Not with Kleptozuela.

    4. Still there, Juan? A little side trip to Santa Bárbara is in order! Para el rebusqueo pues, a ver si consigues alguna otra información.

    5. Reminds me, without the smuggling/bachaqueo, of CAP 1’s oil-bonanza-fueled investments in agriculture/el campo, resulting in many novela-grand hacienda homes, both in the Venezuelan hinterland, and in Miami, with little real increase in Venezuelan agricultural production.

    6. “..the government actually gave most of the land it seized back to their owners…”

      It did, conditionally, return a lot of the fincas that were originally seized. It didn’t give back the Hacienda Bolívar, though, with its 8,000 head of livestock.

      The corrupt and incompetent management of the state corporation that took it over presided over a drop in milk production from 5,000 litres a day to 75 litres a day. The herd of cows and buffalo was reduced to 3,600 and all the internal fences destroyed, allowing different breeds to intermingle.

      Much of the livestock was sold off or slaughtered. “We found piles of bones,” said a woman from the local municipal, which took charge last year. Dozens of squatters were allowed to invade part of the ranch, while the workers (said by Chávez at the time of the seizure to be suffering a regime of “semi-slavery”) hadn’t been paid for months.

    7. Meanwhile in Barinas, Adan Chavez issued a ban to forbit the emission of livestock guides. Which means that you cannot move a head of cattle from point A to point B, even if its going to the slaughterhouse… Also they keep on stealing land left and right.
      So in Barinas people do not say “Verga, Loco, Machete”, sino “Verga, loco, me metieron el machete”

    8. Well my friends… Like in the movie “Forrest Gump”, I can say: “And just like that…” Vzlan economy change from beign a “ports agriculture” (remember Maza Zavala?), to became a “open roads agriculture”… And after that, there are some people who doesn’t believe in Vzla’s progress

    9. Mr. Nagel:

      I was in Santa Barbara three months ago and you will not believe how things are around it.

      Driving from El Vigia to the city there are 55 speed bumps but everybody speeds like hell, alcabalas with no authority working, almost all the haciendas are in a sleeping state, misery all over you look, no lights on the roads at night, electricity is scarce.

      But, National Guards are all over like locusts.

      This government seized a bunch of farms a few years ago and they are in shambles.

      Back to the start of the century !!!!!

    10. The story of the tractor is real funny though!

      By the way, few people will tell their long-gone friends that the situation is hellish. My wife has a saying in spanish: “nunca asomes el culo”.

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