Refugee from Permutaland

For years, I took this perverse pride in being the one lawyer who wasn't milking money out of the permuta system. Instead, I wasted years of my professional life doing completely useless work.

The year 2003 brought two milestones in my life: I graduated from Law School, and Cadivi was born.

For the first couple of years, the exchange control system was not something I bothered much with. I didn’t much travel, and was concentrating on figuring out the ropes of lawyering. Actually, most people were dealing with the uncertainties of an improvised, chavista-style system, trying to figure out “¿con qué se come eso?”.

Then, in 2005 the exchange crimes law was put in place. It tightened controls, but it also left an open door to trade bolivars for dollars through the bonds market – the later infamous permuta loophole. What followed was a massive migration from whatever your profession was to permutaland. And anyone in the business made a killing.

I kept at it in my normal lawyer job. The profession, as was the case with many pre-Chávez era careers, had its own career rhythms. Put in the hours, get a graduate degree, polish your English, endure a crappy salary, and eventually, you would be able to start cashing in big.

Permutaland didn’t place such demands on your patience. Everyone around me seemed to be making fortunes overnight thanks to the immense arbitrage opportunities Cadivi opened up. I kept my eyes on the long term prize, and, drunken with self righteousness, tried to convince myself that I was on the path of becoming a nobler individual.

In that Venezuela, a junior attorney salary was not enough to cover rent in a decent neighborhood, but quite enough to bathe in whisky during the weekends. Vainas de Cadivi.

But as the exchange control rules became more stringent, the amount of exchange control work started to explode. I found myself dedicating at least 75% of my hours to it. While in the streets people spent bolivars as if the world was about to end, at the office we saw that in fact it would.

“Lawyers do better in times of crisis,” people would tell me. A big fat lie. Lawyers do better when things are better. When clients have more money to spend.

Work became all about helping foreign companies deal with the exchange controls. From providing advice on the impossible task of obtaining foreign currency to pay dividends, to finding a legal workaround to repatriate funds.

At that time I never gave much thought as to how useless that experience would be. The moment I first had to put it all down on my resumé to hunt for a job abroad is perhaps when I first realized that the work that had consumed years of my life was meaningless.

But as far as acknowledging the place where I stood, I especially remember this one time.

I had an intern at the office, he was smart, fast, and resourceful. The type of person who would solve a problem without coming up to you 100 times. A good kid, in general, and a promising lawyer. A little wild, perhaps, but who isn’t at 21?

His work space, an open view desk, was adjacent to my higher ranking, closed, cubicle.

On a Friday morning (I remember it was a Friday, later that day I had to check in at the local bar to get shitfaced), I heard him screaming into his phone, rabid and deranged, like a Hollywood Wall Street stockbroker: “close it! close it!” He was speaking loud, throwing curses and massive figures all around. I trotted to his desk to tug at his ear and reprimand him. Just before I came onto him, I heard him slamming his cellphone on the desk, followed by a triumphant “Nojoa!

I understood perfectly what he was doing, and I didn’t really care he was moonlighting as a permutero. When I got to his desk I found this kid, wearing a post-coital smirk and a loose neck tie (just like those Hollywood Wall Street brokers), just grinning.

I started my rant, “chamo, you can’t talk like that here, the partners walk by all the time, clients too, remember you are the face of this organization…”

He didn’t care even a little bit. Instead of listening, took me by the shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said: “Have you got any idea how much money I just made?”     

He was part of a scheme that had become popular at the time, one of those things “everybody” was doing to squeeze a little something from our far-from-infallible exchange regime. “Tarjeteros,” you know.

They would “buy” identity card numbers from people at the barrio, to issue credit cards in their names, get the Cadivi authorization, and then just swipe away.  

Well, my not-so-underpaid intern had quadrupled my yearly salary in just a couple of days. I was speechless, and pale.

I went back to my cubicle, and just sat there.

I remember staring at the gray fabric wall, and spacing out for 20 minutes or so. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of this, but it was the first time I was knocked off my high horse. All the bullshit I’d been preaching, the pretty words about principles and morals. Every single effort I had made up to that moment seemed miniscule. Laughable.

What sort of motivation would this kid have to follow my career path and, in a few years, sit in this same cubicle staring at the same gray wall? What motivation could I have to keep on going? What was the future going to be like?

At the time, the official exchange rate was 2.15 on the Dollar, and the parallel rate was 3.5. Just this week, week the black market Dollar crossed the Bs. 1,000.00 mark.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I didn’t capitulate to permutaland. But, right then and there, I can tell you how I felt: like a fucking idiot.

That was, perhaps, when I realized that I had to get away. At least for a while. A few months later, in 2008, I left Venezuela to get my Master’s degree stateside.

Using Cadivi dollars, of course.