Living in Caracas, it’s easy to think of CLAPs —the Socialist Party-organized neighborhood committees charged with delivering groceries door to door to people— as just one of several ways to get food. But head into Deep Venezuela and a different reality emerges. In small cities, CLAPs are increasingly the only game in town, making the prospect of getting cut off genuinely terrifying.

It’s a reality that came home to me over the holidays this year, which I spent with my grandma in San Juan de Los Morros. It’s a small city of 125,000 that serves as the capital of Guarico, a very rural, very chavista state in the country’s sweltering central plains, the llanos. Like all state capitals in rural Venezuela, San Juan de los Morros is a government town. Everybody’s a public employee, unless you make a living in commerce selling stuff to those public employees.

Grandma’s lived here a long time, in an area known as “Las Palmas,” one of the last parts of the city just before the street grid gives way to the “carretera nacional” to neighboring Aragua. But things have changed a lot in San Juan since she moved there 50 years ago.

The gripes about having to wait for the Communist state to knock on your door to find out if you’ll eat that month sounded like stories from a different planet.

When vice-president Aristóbulo Istúriz announced the CLAPs’ creation, my grandma’s house was among the first to be registered. My family’s complaints about the crappy bag have become a constant: month after month, reporting with arrechera it’s scrawny content, though sometimes also sometimes celebrating una que otra harina pan.

But it all sounded so distant to me. I’m a young guy living in what used to be sifrino neighbourhood in Caracas. The gripes about having to wait for the Communist state to knock on your door to find out if you’ll eat that month sounded like stories from a different planet. In my world, CLAPs are just some schizophrenic populist handout, a delivery version of Mercal

It took going out to see grandma to see how blinkered that view is. Out there, CLAPs are virtually the only way to get the things a family needs to survive.

In Las Palmas, where grandma lives, CLAPs are run by a group of chavista neighbours in coordination with a shady organization in Caracas in charge of sourcing. They’ve micro-segmentated the terrain, to the point that in my grandma’s case, the people who live on her side of the road get their bags from one CLAPs committee, and the people on the opposite side from another.

The segmentation protocol is strict…in its own TropicalMierda way.

A separate branch of the CLAPs behemoth runs a system of “bodegas popular”, neighborhood shops. These are just as tightly segmented: you can go and shop only in the one that corresponds to your address. No exceptions. No me lo contaron: I saw a longtime neighbor of my grandma, Cesar, was taken off the line for the abasto he’d shopped at for years because it’s now a CLAPs Bodega Popular, and it’s not the one he’s assigned to.

The segmentation protocol is strict…in its own TropicalMierda way. There’s no cédula, no censo, nothing. The whole setup relies on a state-of-the-art facial recognition scanning algorithm, in the form of a sixtysomething PSUV T-shirt-wearing lady who looks like Java the Hutt. She sits there behind the bodega fence scanning the crowd and deciding who does and who doesn’t get one of the Golden Tickets you need to buy price-controlled items there.

“Se acabaron los tickets chamo,” she told me as I made a forlorn attempt to get ahold of 2 kg. of Harina PAN to surprise grandma with.

It’s a small bodega. Realistically, they sell more beers than staples, but that they the harina was the thing. I stood around while I called my grandma to let her know I’d failed in my mission. Two seconds later a guy walked in, greeted the same lady, and got his ticket. “It’s because it doesn’t looks like you live around here, boy,” was what a neighbor told me later, sizing up the situation.

Nobody dares to complain. I knew people from the neighborhood who could have put in a word for me, but I wouldn’t dare to ask them: it’s way too risky to challenge these guys. It costs them nothing to cut you off. And they control pretty much all the food in town now.

I come back a little later in the company of my aunt, who knows the bodeguera well and, conveniently, is owed her a couple of favors.

Ay mijo, fuera’ sabido de antes!, she said as she gave me a ticket. That doesn’t mean you walk out with goods right away, though. That would be too simple.

We had to go back the next day, ticket in hand, to stand in the short line to buy the cornflour, en combo, of course: to get the price-controlled flour —the kind mixed with rice flour, because heaven forbid we have anything nice— you have to buy them in a bundle them up with some other product the store can actually make some profit on sardinas, weird knock-off cheezwhiz, whatever.

That was the easy part.

That was CLAPs Lite. CLAPs Classic is what you’re faced with when la bolsa comes down. On December 29th I found my auntie in front of the house chatting with the vecinas in conspiratorial tones. They were talking about the bolsa that had arrived which, as one neighbor with an inside source at the committee said, came with pernil: the prized pork leg Venezuelans traditionally cook up at Christmas. Yes, I know, Christmas had been four days before, but it was 2016, nobody was going to look at the fine print.

“I wonder how much that bag is going to cost…” said one neighbor.

“Better go to the bank and take out at least Bs.40,000 to set aside for this,” another replied. “We can’t possibly miss out on this.”

That same day we went to the bank to try to get some cash. I asked my aunt what she thought our chances were to get an actual bag, she told me it was a sure thing. The problem wasn’t the bag, it was the cash. This was all amid the Bs.100 bolivar bill freakout, the banks were mobbed with people putting money in, while we were stuck in line trying to take those same, soon-to-be-illegal bills out.

The following day we walked into the barrio to meet up in front of a house and a small bulk of people.

“Yeah, and the toys just never turned up, nawara de bandidos que son esta gente” another replied.

Everybody greeted each other, it was a social event. There was a good vibe in the air, a kind of group joy because of the pernil’s arrival.

“Menos mal que por lo menos esto llegó, at home we didn’t even get to make hallacas” I overheard someone say.

“Yeah, and the toys just never turned up, nawara de bandidos que son esta gente” another replied, oblivious to the irony.

Outside the house, there was a big sheet of wrapping paper with neighbors’s names scribbled across it; is you weren’t on it then no pernil for you.

Then, the unexpected: another piece of wrapping paper has Electronic Wire Transfer instructions scribbled across it. Turns out we didn’t need all that cash…

To be sure, queuing under the blazing llanero sun next to a delivery truck to get some food so you can have decent New Year’s Eve is nobody’s idea of a good time. People were weirdly both annoyed and happy at the same time. There was an Stockholm syndrome smoothing the scene.

We went home with the bolsa and the big prize: 12 frozen kilos’ worth of the leg of some unfortunate Brazilian pig. It’s in the oven cooking as I write this. In the kitchen, my grandmother is making the pan de jamón and the ensalada de gallina, just like she does every year, as gaitas play on the radio. Life goes on.

There’s nothing normal about this new normal, though. There’s a tension in the air about the food shortages, and the feeling that everyone’s got about this. It feels like the whole country is perched precariously on top of a bomb that’s bound to go off sooner or later.

Every day, at around 5:00 p.m. a group of heavily armed police officers stopped next to the house, just off the busy road to Maracay. At first I thought it was part of a simple Operativo de Navidad Segura bla bla bla, but my aunt made it clear to me that it was because looting attempts had become too frequent at nightfall there. With all those heavy trucks on that road, people had taken to bunching there at nightfall to see if they manage to pillage one of them.

:/

It’s good being back with the family again. In some ways, this is my home too. It’s where I spent almost every weekend as a child, for one thing.  As the smell of the pork wafts in from the kitchen, I can just about close my eyes, concentrate on Betulio Medina’s voice on the radio and just about persuade myself this is a normal Christmas.

But it’s not sustainable. I open my eyes, I think about the daily humiliations my grandma and my aunt are having to endure just to survive out here amid this madness, and the illusion crumbles.

27 COMMENTS

  1. Rafael – As an econ student at UCV, would you please tell a bit about what they teach? E.g. is it supply and demand curves, investment capital, production possibility curves, etc.? Or is it about centralized planning in a socialist economy, the role of the army in government, the fatal flaws of the profit motive, etc.? (I don’t know much about socialist centralized economies, and I’m eager to learn! *Joke.)

  2. So, not only they manage to reduce most of the country to be basically begging for food. They have to beg with documents, copies of documents, and more and more paperwork.

    And then the arbitrary gatekeepers.

    • Oh, heavens no! Not just “arbitrary” gatekeepers. Ordinary people with scruples and empathy just won’t do for this job. No, indeed… These gatekeepers are normally miserable bullies whose sole joy in life is exercising the only power they have over their fellow citizens, which is the power to say, “No!”.

  3. The poor people around the neighborhood where I live did receive a more modern version of pernil in their clap bags:

    Two cans of sardines in tomato sauce.

    And that was after the communal council got notified that the “cupo” assigned to this zone might get cut because the “battle hall” (sala de batalla) felt that this was a zone too full of “non-believers in the process”

  4. If the people of San Juan de los Morros accept this, what more can be said? They are reduced, knowingly or not, to the category of beggars, depending on government handouts in exchange for loyalty to an iliterate.
    As T.S. Eliot would have said:
    This is the way Venezuela ends
    this is the way Venezuela ends
    Not with a bang but a Brazilian pig haunch

    • Boiling Frog Effect, Cuban style.

      Chavez first lied to all Venezuelans, saying he would protect private property, freedoms, commerce, democracy.. Then he started to show his true colors, ‘socialism’, viva Castro, even communism.. slowly, but surely. Since Venezuela’s “pueblo’ is rather naive (not to say dumb and poorly educated) they started getting used to draconian Chavistoide measures and controls. They depended more and more on the corrupt narco-regime. Oil prices were high, so the public payroll grew, close to million leeches working for the government directly, plus many more, including private sectors, depending on corrupt government contracts.

      With all this corruption, plus world-record crime-rates, all of us who could got the hell out of Vzla. Massive Brain drain, which continues today, to the tune of Million of the few educated professionals we once had. Never to return. (will you, the reader, return? Didn’t think so..)

      So what’s left is for the most part a bunch of poorly educated sheep, boiled frogs, haciendo cola.. Or worse: Enchufados, or even worse: corruptos, thieves, at every level, in every town, by the millions, not just Chavistoides with government positions.

      It’s a neo-castrista model, boiling-frog style. Not a classic Dictatorship, but an arroz-con-mango just as effective for Stealing Millions of $$ every week, everywhere.. Controles de cambio, divisas, ‘pressio jujto’, canasta basica’,, rebolusion bolibanana.. petroleo pa’ china o rusia, compras de armas.. the military getting rich trading food, and drugs, etc, etc.

      Y el “pueblo”? What can they do.. get in line, hope to get some harina pan, or go to Brazil, or go to jail if they complain too much. Sosialijmo Latino, estilo siglo 21.. Aprieta pero no ahoga, eso si, roban todo, y raspan muy bien lo poco que queda en la olla.

      Solucion? Un Perez Jimenez, lamentablemente. No hay otra.. Pobre Capriles, MCM o hasta Leopoldo o Henry, no podran hacer nada en decadas por venir para medio-arreglar ese monstruo que es Vzla. A aprender Portugues o Ingles, salvese quien pueda!

      • PJ would be a godsend, necessary, but, with the high level of incompetence/low level of education/overall lack of responsibility in the military, and in Venezuela in general, I’m not sure this is probable….

  5. When I dream of some day Venezuela attempting to become a modern economy , no holds barred , with the capital resources and guidance to engage in the pursuit of full development …….the thought of the millions of people like those depicted in this story , becoming productive workers is one that weights heavily in my mind ……for it is obvious that they will lack the character traits and habits and knowhow to contribute anything to the pursuit of a modern productive economy …….instead we must think them as a drag to any such effort…….!! and yet they are human beings , they cant be left to starve, some effort must be made to rescue their children to become productive citizens , they must be fed , their basic needs have to be attended to, but can we realistically expect them to be an active useful part of any national endevour to improve our countrys standard of living except perhaps on a very minor scale…..!!

    Thats why we have to think of creating elite islands of excellence in key sectors of the economy , putting the best to work in their tasks ….to act as locomotives to drag the less capable segments of the population slowly forward……there are not enough resouces to try and movilize all , we must prioritize , go for those resources that can give us the biggest bang for the buck , concentrate them , organize them , keep partisan politics out of their way and then wait for time to and good working principles to do their job .

    One thing that makes it all more difficult , the people in this story may have little to contribute to the big task but they are voters , their sense of inner dignity has to be sattisfied ……even if most of them may lack the intelllecutal and mental wherewithal to act the model citizens ……!! How the hell do you handle that ….??

    • Hi Bill,

      That sure sounds like the model tried in Venezuela in the 60-70s. Ambitious people were sent around the world to get educated in the best universities and a cosmopolitan middle class was developed.

      But the country was bigger than the newly minted elite, and the poor ganged behind Chavez to make things right for them. And they did, mientras duro la fiesta del petroleo. Now they have the chavista hangover.

      • Not quite Renacuajo , the emphasis is on creating an elite of highly functional and high performance organizations and teams of experts not just on educating individuals or grand political leaders……, you cant raise the working standards of millions at one go , you dont have the resources for that , so you concentrate your resources where they can have the biggest impact , Paretto style , you start small and slowly grow bigger by using the salvaged organizations to colonize the bigger orgaizations and raise their standards of performance in a several stage process , spreading ink spot style.

        The problem as you mentioned is political , if the mass of the less productive hoi poloi have grievances that arent taken care of then they use their vote to destroy the elite organizations before they do their magic ….Fukuyama has made a study of how many Asian countries became economically developed , usually they had an enlightened dictator that engineered the appearance and growth of elite organizations until the institutions were strong enough to sustain themselves in a democratic environment……..!!

        We have to do the same thing but while maintaning democratic processes , i.e without dictators……..thats the biggest challenge…….!!

        In WWII the french dispersed their tanks amidst their infantry regiments , so the tanks superior fire power and mobility was diluted and wasnt of much use , the germans conentrated their tanks in tank divisions that played havoc with french defenses……… , same principle !!

    • Elites? Don’t we learn? This elite pseudo normalisation is definitely not what Japan did, what Germany did, what South Korea…indeed the way the USA started as UK colony. We need to look at the masses not like some inferior bunch but as the group we need to educate first. Out of them elites will appear that carry out the sustainable development.

      • The good hard working very smart masses are our salvation …all they need is education and they will transform our economy and make us into a modern state ……..its the old shibolet that kepts being repeated , so simple, so sentimental….., so trite and so wrong …..!!

        • it has never been applied because the government has preferred to spend much more money to finance our university studies and your trips abroad than very good basic education. Arrogance is what the so-called elite has had in Venezuela since colonial times.

  6. No more Clap for your grandma if Java the Hut’s niece who understands english a little bit reads this to her. “Ese fue el escuálido del otro día”.

  7. Jajaja chamo….tú si eres sifrino vale: “head into Deep Venezuela” . The distance between San Juan and Caracas is only 100 km and by asphalted roads. I wonder what you would say about a trip to Puerto Ayacucho!

    • Indeed. I was thinking the same thing. Also, he says San Juan is a small city. For Chinese standards it is. For Venezuelan and even German standards San Juan is the average city when it comes to population, among other things. It is this attitude of Caracas is Caracas that has been so damaging at least since the last two centuries

  8. Pernil arrived late last week in our neck of the woods, 850 bs per kilo. The wife of one of my employees stood in line from mid day until almost 10PM to get hers. Guess where it came from? PORTUGAL!!!!

    Paid for in dollars and then shipped across the Atlantic Ocean but it only cost 850 bs per kilo while if you can find a local supplier, you’ll pay about 3500 bs.

    When I mention to the average campesino that an 850 bs per kilo pernil from Portugal is actually far more costly than an locally-supplied 3500 bs per kilo pernil, I just get blank stares. When I explain that it would be far better to encourage local production of pork and instead use those dollars for public works projects like giving our humble pueblo running water, a few nod their heads in agreement.

    At the end of the day though, they’re just glad they got their pernil at only 850 bs per kilo. I think it’s hopeless.

    • Because “viveza criolla” (aka “being a mamagüevo”, thanks, Chigüire Bipolar) is composed from a staggering amount of hypocrisy and sociopathy.

  9. Wonderful post, illustrating the extent of the imposition of Cuban Communism in Venezuela, not as an ideology, but as a means of daily survival. And, when/if the new Carnet De La Patria is rolled out, with everyone’s personal/voting/etc. information encoded, the Govt. will have a method of citizen control even more effective than the old Cuban Communist food rationing booklets. The extent of Govt. intent to break private enterprise in Venezuela, as well as another example of colossal Govt. corruption, is illustrated by the recent arrival of the local CLAP box (many areas of the Country didn’t even receive one)–25lbs., including 2kgs. of corn flour, 6 tins of tuna, 2 small powdered milks, 10 small pasta pkgs., 1 mini catsup and mayonnaise, all at a bargain price of Bs. 10.5m–but, guess what–ALL IMPORTED FROM MEXICO!

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