Santa Bárbara

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.