A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon this guy, who used to live a block away from my house, in the lower-middle class neighbourhood of San Bernardino. A tall, prematurely balding guy who seemed way too old to be in our class (which was true, since he’d failed cuarto año), he was the stereotypical high school bully: making fun of the nerds and getting into fights almost daily was his game. The guy had no book smarts, but he had great street smarts: he boasted of a seemingly endless supply of panas in Ministries, Banks, Registers, and any conceivable part of the national government.
After going over the good old times from our Senior Year in high school; he tells me he just got married, and that he’s been in the process of moving to Colombia since last year. Things seemed to go well for them. His old-lady was working at a hospital there, easily leaving to shame her former Bolivar-denominated salary, and basically living way better than the regular Venezuelan nowadays.
He was going back-and-forth between the two countries. “I have to travel a lot because of the family business,” he said. His family import and install kitchen tops, I find out. Since he also had Paisa citizenship, and judging by the crisis in consumer spending in Venezuela, I asked him why he just didn’t close shop and move to Colombia. His answer was chilling:
“Para sacar toda la plata que pueda del país, mano.”
Doing my best to camouflage my contempt, I keep listening; it seemed like he wanted to talk to somebody about all of this. He goes on and on about some of his biggest hits: a few years back, he spent over a month in Miami with an ex-girlfriend, with his, hers, and five other credit cards filled hasta las metras with Cadivi dollars. A second story was about a vuelta that involved some of his shady connections from back in the day, netting him enough dollars to buy an apartment in a high-end Caracas neighborhood.
When he finds out that I work as a trader, he casually begins to tell me about one of his panas who’s also into trading: “I don’t know his name or what he looks like. I just know him from a Blackberry PIN chatroom. It’s a group of several anonymous types, every one taking care of a wheel on the machine; and trust me, things always just happen with these guys”.
I’m speechless. “We were very active in 2011, during the great SITME rosca.”
“In our prime, we managed to grab 20k a day!”
At that point I was in disbelief. I asked him what had happened with that group, the Blackberry chat room. “Nah, we had to close shop. It was getting pretty dangerous.”
He tells me he was kidnapped and had to pay a bigtime ransom to walk. His kidnappers, he told me, were CICPC guys who found out about his little chat group and knew how much he was pillaging. I then remembered that he has mourned at least three guys in the past year.
“Que bandera es la vida, mano”, he lamented on his Facebook wall last November, about a guy I assume was one of his colleagues of the underworld.
I walk off, pissed off. He’s really just another bolichico, in the terms of Doña Petra Vs The Machine. “I’m my own boss, wake up late every day, and do whatever I want to, always.”
What really rankles is that he’s a very vocal escuálido on social media: the kind of guy whose Facebook is just wall-to-wall Maduradas and other El Cafetal-style pap, but his life is a carousel of ill-gotten petrostate goodies. An even starker contrast was evident with his and my other classmates’ lifestyles: most of us are still working in underpaid jobs, slugging it out for a quince y último living with our parents, with no real prospects in the country; and dreaming of emigrating (or rather escaping) from the country.
Not him. My high school buddy embraced the chaos of the Maduro Administration and dared to stay in the country playing not to survive, but to win. In the end, out of all my classmates, he’s the one who has the strongest reasons to stay here. Greed anchors in a way love can’t.