A Good Venezuelan Christmas

Photo: Gentiuno

Christmas was a time for family, booze and spending money. But this year, the monster of economic crisis grew to legendary proportions and most Venezuelans are powerless against it: people are desperate to buy food they can barely afford, before prices double next week. I often see entire families looking for food in the garbage, so it feels weird not to celebrate Christmas, but it feels even weirder to celebrate anything in this context.

In my house, we are doing our best to have a half-decent Christmas, but it’s an uphill battle.

We’ve never prepared hallacas. We’re one of those families that skip the homely activity of hallaca-making and buy them straight from other families. This year, however, no one is making them. Ingredients are hard to come by, or are extremely expensive. We found some, but only enough for dinner; normally, we would eat hallacas all through December.

Bakeries barely make bread, let alone the traditional pan de jamón. Our pernil is the chicken we bought months ago (we need more for the salad, but we can’t find any – or mayonnaise). There are no sodas of any flavor, so we’re having papelón con limón. It goes without saying, there are no gifts, for anyone.

It feels weird not to celebrate Christmas, but it feels even weirder to celebrate anything in this context.

To top it all, we’re not even facing the communismpocalypse together. I lost count of how many people I care about left Venezuela this year, so it’ll be odd, lonely holidays full of video calls, I guess.

What’s the plan? We’ll have a crappy Christmas dinner, with little to celebrate and no booze to mitigate it all. I’ll be as sad and angry as I should be with everything that’s happening. This, guys, isn’t Christmas. That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s a lame imitation, not the thing with the loud family at the table and enough pernil for everyone to explode, it won’t be the Christmas filled with memories you can smell, when everyone is extra nice to each other and there are gifts and gaitas. Something that lives only in my mind now.

Venezuelans all over the world will try to emulate their versions of my memory the best way they can, and they’ll probably fail. But it’s ok, we’re all trying and failing too.

Let’s keep those memories there, where the communists can’t reach them, knowing we’ll bring them to reality soon enough. For now, I just wish everyone a merry fake Venezuelan Christmas.

And fuck you, Nicolás.

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  1. Thanks, Carlos, for the article. I tried three times to try to wish you guys a Merry Christmas, and couldn’t. I remember the capitalist Christmas in Caracas, with tumba ranchos starting a crazy rhythm as soon as it got dark, and nobody sane planning on getting any sleep until three in the morning. Midnight New Year’s was almost a drum roll of explosions over the capital. And yeah, probably some people died, and probably some got hit with falling debris, I’m sure at least one little bamboo stick landed in someone’s drink, maybe a house or two got burned to the ground. I watched one guy lay a tumba rancho down on the street, an adult. It ran almost a block and exploded under someone’s parked car. No fire, just laughs. When I was eight years old, we kids in our mini-patota got our hands on a tumba gobierno, one of our Caraquenos got it, and we set it off in a foot-deep hole we dug in a vacant lot. We were three blocks away before we stopped running, wondering if we should go back and re-light the fuse. Just then, it rocked the neighborhood! The bass drum of fireworks! You could set one off in Baruta, and it would be heard at Boqueron Uno. Up here in the U.S., we’d all probably do a year in jail for that. What I loved about Christmas in Caracas was that there were no official fireworks – everyone did their own. Here in the U.S., it’s all official and licensed. Organizados y aguados, but we eat well.

    Guantanamera was a nice song, a nice little fictional dream, pretty to listen to, pero bajo capitalismo, hasta los pobres de la tierra gozaban por lo menos algo! Un poco de tetero, un poco de pasilla, un poco de comida y un poco de libertad.

    May there be better times ahead for Venezuela, soon. May you get it all back.

    • In the US, we save the fireworks for new years and mainly the 4th of July. Black powder and “flash powder” that makes up most fireworks doesn’t work so well in -10 C temps.

      But on Independence day, lots of stuff goes off. A border run to Pennsylvania, or Ohio or a road trip to South Dakota for the really good stuff.

      Be careful no matter what time of year.

  2. Dear Carlos,
    Sorry that Christmas – and life in general – sucks in Venezuela. Seems to be I don’t know how you survive there, let alone stay optimistic (“knowing we’ll bring them to reality soon enough”). Understandable that many of your friends and loved ones have left; you must have powerful reasons to stay. To quote English poet Thomas Yorke: “Everybody leaves, if they get the chance.” Maybe it will soon be your chance.

  3. Merry Christmas to all from the east of Venezuela.

    Our story here is the same as relayed by Carlos, almost word for word. Today, Christmas Day, was the first day I’ve eaten hallaca, or even heard of anyone preparing one and normally the locals are preparing them as soon as December hits. I’ve covered the shop here for two days while the spousal unit traveled to Maturin to be with her kids and their families who came in from across the country……it was she who brought me the hallacas.

    For those who don’t know about the Venezuelan tradition of making and eating hallacas, compare it to the festivities surrounding a family in the US preparing Thanksgiving Dinner. Then, for comparison’s sake, imagine trying to do so without the turkey, a ham, greenbeans, potatoes, yams, dinner rolls, and all the other traditional dishes served on that special family day. Sad indeed what we’ve become.

    Business here was as brisk as I’ve ever seen it. It’s actually amazing how much we took in considering we have no bread, eggs, sardines, chicken, meat, pork, spaguetti, mayonnaise, sugar, coffee, or butter to sell. For once, we do have a good supply of cooking oil, but I figure that’s only because there’s nothing to cook.

    Thank god for cigarettes though. Figuring the locals would drink and smoke themsevles out of their misery was a wise bet on our part. I’d like to know who many cartons of cigs I sold.

    And hey, here’s a trivia question. How many 50 bs notes does it take to buy a carton of cigarettes at the regulated price? The answer: 3600 of the bastards! I’ve never seen so many 50 bs notes in my life. Fortunately, son #1 brought us a bill counter a few months ago that he bought in Colombia (they can’t be found here at almost any price). Without that wonderful machine, I’d have certainly killed myself or one of my clients last night.

    Speaking of bills, daughter #3 tells us that in Barcelona, there are now 3 tiers of pricing in the few shops that remain open. Tier #1 is the best price and that is obtained by paying with bills of 500 bs and up. Tier #2, more expensive, is paying with bills of 100 & 50 bs. Tier #3 is paying by wire transfer. Some shops she says have eliminated Tier #2 altogether and are accepting only the higher denomination bills or wire transfers. That probably explains why we’ve seen a dramatic increase in volume of the 50 bs notes in this area.

    Our corn harvest is all but complete and to date we’ve stored about 30,000 kilos of dry white corn. We’re also trillando and storing the final processed product in plastic drums for later sale. We’ve got capacity for 20,000 additional kilos, but I don’t know if we’ll get there. I’ve bought corn here for many years but have never had a year like this one. In the past, one could “cuadrar” or square-up a deal for price and volume as the harvest started and be sure that the product would be there as long as the yield was not significantly below. Not so this year. Sellers are as cagey as I’ve ever seen…….some will outright screw the buyer if another comes along and offers a better price.

    I understand why they do what they do, I ju

    • MRubio,
      Good to hear from you. Was a little worried. You live in interesting times down there. I don’t smoke, but if a carton = 400 cigarettes @s 180.000 Bs (did I get that right?) with the USD at 112.000 Bs, that’s less than 1 penny per cigarette. Sounds like an amazing bargain. If I may ask, where do these cartons come from? How the heck do the wholesalers make any money for their trouble getting them to eastern VE – even if they “fell off a truck”?

      • AG, there are two major brands here, Belmont and Consul. The Consul are actually now labeled Pall Mall…..that’s a blast from the past for me as I recall the name from childhood. We also purchase Lucky Strike cigs though they don’t move like the other brands. Then there’s Belmont Switch, which is a long menthol cigarette popular with the younger crowd. Consul is easily the top seller because of price as it’s the cheapest.

        A carton of Consul has 10 packs with 20 cigarettes per pack, so 200 cigs for 180,000 bs or $1.67 per pack at 112,000 bs to the dollar. Bargain, I guess, would be in the eyes of the beholder…..considering the risks. LOL Belmont sell for 20,000 bs per pack, 200,000 bs per carton.

        Cigs come in half-boxes as well, 10 cigs to the box at exactly half the price. And if that’s not good enough for one’s budget, we also sell cigs individually, which is very popular here. I had never seen such a thing before my woman started selling them like that in the bodega.

        If I’m correct, I think cigs are about $10 per box in the US. People here can’t believe it when I tell them that, in the US, cigs cost the equivalent of 1,000,000 bs or more PER BOX.

        The packaging claims they’re produced and packaged in Venezuela. Each box comes with its government-mandated sales price. We sell at that price though most merchants here charge extra. I’m sure that’s one reason we move so many cigarettes. We’ve basically become the distributor for this area as the supplier has told us we’re now buying more weekly than the local chinese merchant.

        BTW, here lately, prices have been change (going up of course) almost every other week. They bitch, but they always seem to have the money to buy more.

        • “Each box comes with its government-mandated sales price.”

          Does the 1800.000 Bs government price include any taxes? If so, who pays them? I believe in the US, most of the price of cigarettes is high state taxes, leading to a healthy black market.

          If you survive this experience, you will be an expert in human economic psychology. You probably already are.

  4. “we do have a good supply of cooking oil, but I figure that’s only because there’s nothing to cook”

    MRubio my heart cracked reading your lines.

    Fuck Hugo. Fuck Nicolas. Fuck Jorge. Fuck Diosdado. Fuck them all.

    I too thought about saying Merry Christmas to the CC team but couldn’t find the right words.

    Although the subject ain’t merry, your work is. So, for the ones in Venezuela, hope you find the strength to keep going.

    Again, your work is truly valued.

    • Thanks for the kind words Leona. I’ve found myself recently wondering if it’s time to just cash in and start over somewhere else, but encouragement like yours keeps me going. At the end of the day, the woman and I both know we’re working practically free of charge as no one can earn a real living here, not with inflation roaring ahead and all the obstacles the government throws in the way of private businesses. These days, merely treading water is an accomplishment of epic proportions in this country.

      Tonight though I was reminded of why what we’re doing here is of value to a lot of the locals.

      As I mentioned in the post above, while my woman was in Maturin visiting her kids, I took in a lot of cash. Once she arrived at mid-day, I began organizing the bills for an attempt at restocking the bodega this week and for some of the transfers she does for specific clients. As you’re probably aware, when it comes to giving their clients cash, the banking system has all but collapsed in this country.

      A couple I recognize as living here in town, but who rarely visit the bodega, came by this evening. After waiting in line, the young lady asked if they could do a wire transfer to buy a few kilos of “maiz trillado” and some sweets for the kids for Christmas. I told her they could and they were obviously relieved. She then sheepishly asked if it was possible that they could also receive some cash via transfer. They must have been sure we’d say no because when we told her she could transfer for 500,000 bs in cash, she dropped her head for a moment, sighed deeply, and her eyes welled up with tears. As it turns out, they’d been trying to find cash for days, no one would help them, and they were at wits end.

      What do you do when you have kids to feed and clothe, there is no cash available, and many people do not accept transfers for relatively small amounts, or even have the capacity to manage a transfer?

      Rumage in the garbage and beg, I guess.

      Yeah, fuck Maduro and the horse he rode in on.

  5. Cigs are so heavily taxed here in the US. Several shop now sell what look like very fine paper scredders so smokers can buy raw leaves from Farmers (Etsy) and go through and maker their own.

    Cigarette tubes are sold now by the case (5000) and rolling machines that spit out a single in 10 sec are big money.

    Smokers clubs are where groups get together and pool their funds to buy in bulk. Final price after 50000 cigs are made is around $0.05 each.

    I now vape so don’t fight that battle these days.

  6. I’ve never been a fan of the fireworks. Or, better to say, I’m a fan of the light and colour of some of the fireworks, but never got what was the appeal of having the city sound like Irak on a bad day.

    I guess it would be some of those things that irritate you a lot and then, when they disappear, you feel that their absence is weird, that it makes you uneasy. A bit like those zombie movies with shots of the inmaculate city but empty and silent.

  7. I would wish a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to my friends in Venezuela, but given the present situation it would simply ring hollow – so I will simply say: Hang in there. I can’t imagine what you are going through, but you should know millions of us in the rest of the world have not forgotten you and are not averting our eyes to the catastrophe as others prefer to do, some for the sake of their ideological dogmas or others for their Christmas cheer and easy living. We are with you in our prayers and thoughts, and remember it is always darkest before the dawn. I believe the economic conditions will force some resolution for Venezuela to happen soon – either full change for the better or consolidation of the regime for the worst. But 2018 will bring clarity one way or another. Stay strong.

    • “I believe the economic conditions will force some resolution for Venezuela to happen soon – either full change for the better or consolidation of the regime for the worst. But 2018 will bring clarity one way or another.”

      Wow CheshireCat, You and I think alike.

      I traveled to a nearby pueblo this morning to pick up my tractor mechanic so he could check out a problem with my John Deere. On the way here we were talking about the country’s RAPIDLY deteriorating condition and he asked my opinion about the future. I told him I really had no clue what the future holds, though I felt that 2018 would be make or break, in essence, something has to give, and soon.

  8. My survey of Christmas in Venezuela has been heart breaking too. Particularly the rawness of knowing what these celebrations were and meant, just a hand full of years ago! And still A~no Nuevo must be endured.

    I just can’t shake from my head the Venezuelan taunt of “… y te vas a quedar con esa??”

    I have to think that in addition of sitting on the ‘biggest oil reserves of the world’, Venezuela is sitting on the biggest resentment toward its government in the world. Hunger is very personal.

    I am also pondering the Chavistas ‘ni~no Jesus moves’ of the past few days:
    1)-The release of the political prisioners
    2)-The latest editorial from Rafael Ramirez in Aporrea.

    ANY concession from Chavismo is remarkable because they never concede. So will there be a next move? What are they trying to do? Will it be even effective?

    Ramirez’s editorial shows what a total turd he is. I also get a sense of how disconnected he is from Venezuela. He seems to attempt a Nicmer Evans move. He is the good chavista while the bad chavistas are in power making a mess of it all. He tries to make the point that PDVSA broke after he left. But again, the choir of Chavistas anti Maduristas increases in their feckless exile, but it makes you wonder.

    So now it is time to measure the stupidity and stubbornness of the military. How far will they take this death march?

  9. First off, it’s great to hear from M Rubio. Welcome back.There is a news story about a Venezulean in the US trying to work out a deal with the US so that Maduro will escape jail in exchange for surrendering power. It ran a few days ago in the Miani Herald but the lack of discussion here makes me think the news report is speculative. Has anyone else seen the story? I agree about 2018. My fear or concern is that a deal will result in continued Chavista rule, perhaps Chavista lite.

    • Is Chavista lite possible? This sounds like a benign organ failure 🙂

      But I could see Chavista lite in power protecting the retreat while the kingpins escape to a planned golden exile. It will probably be a Military Junta, insofar that if any Chavismo lite exist it is there.

    • Thanks for the welcome back Mr. Crispin, though I never really left. Just had a hard time getting on-line and was also pretty busy with the corn harvest details.

      I read the Miami Herald story today. The guy making the overtures is the chavista enchufado owner of Globovision who bought the company after Chavez ran off the former owners by threatening to cancel their broadcast license because they were too tough on chavismo. At least from the article’s point of view, his efforts won’t go anywhere within Trump’s circle of decision makers.

      Speaking for myself, I’d rather see things get even worse for a while rather than letting this criminal regime off the hook for their crimes. Lord knows the Venezuelan people have suffered. The criminals should as well.

  10. And now I’m reading about the whole Pernil – Portugal thing.

    The creature from IT couldnt manage to be so murderously clownish as Maduro and company.


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