Tuesday, January 28, 2003

THE WEEK IN REVIEW: FROM THE US of A
January 20-27, 2003

This last week I had to travel for business to the USA. There is an annual meeting for the Poultry Industry that I must attend. Thus, in spite of all the trouble that it would take I had to head up North. These troubles started early enough when a threat of Delta airlines forced me to run home at noon on Monday to catch the daily Atlanta flight as apparently there was a risk of cancellation on Tuesday, not to mention that they had not even called me to announce that the morning flight had become an afternoon flight. With a hastily made bag (I forgot several items such as my dress up belt and toothpaste) we had to try to find a cab with gas that would take us to the airport. The one we reserved failed to show up and by sheer luck we found one in front of our house that just stopped to inquire, seeing us with bags… We made it a few minutes late, registration was closed. But extensive bitching to Delta and reminding them that we had warned them of our delay due to their own shoddy work made them reopen registration. We took of.

I was sitting by the window. Caracas airport is actually on the shore, 900 meters lower, next to La Guaira, the second biggest harbor in Venezuela. When airplanes take off you are treated to a full view of the mountain range that collapsed 3 years ago, and to La Guaira. Well, the harbor that serves an area where 10 million people live had not a single ship on dock or at anchor. Except for a navy coast guard. In the past I have always seen at least 3-5 container ships bringing in the essential imports and maybe 2 or 3 waiting to get in. Just imagine Seattle or Boston without ships.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise since it gave us a free Tuesday to rest and shop before the trade show opened its doors on Wednesday. Good, because Wednesday as we were working the different stands that we had to visit we were informed that the Venezuelan government had installed a currency exchange control. For those of you that do not know this modality, in practical terms it means that if you travel overseas you can take a limited quantity of dollars with you, and that if you want to import anything you have to justify the need to the government. Otherwise, zero dollars, euros or whatnot. In real life terms it meant that our Venezuelan Credit Cards had ceased to function. That is, how am I going to pay for my hotel, food, aspirin, dress up belt, toothpaste, etc…

But we smelled a rat long ago and I had a few traveler’s checks with me and my little Teacher Credit Union ATM from my US years. Still, it was embarrassing to see our US and South American friends offering to pay for our hotels, etc… That they knew and understood what was going on did not diminish the embarrassment.

What was considerably more difficult was dealing with my providers of goods. Usually we come up to three people from my company so we can deal with several folks at the same time. But this year I came alone, after much hesitation. Though some close business partners came along, and alone, it was still a lonely set of meetings trying to explain that we were still in business, that we did not know what would happen in the long run, that we could not make any plans yet, etc... People were actually quite nice and grateful that at least we had sent someone to explain things, and offering business help when it will be appropriate. If Chavez give us a chance we might still recover.

However I heard more than once that many US business are now extremely reluctant to make any investment in Venezuela for the foreseeable future. If the reasons are obvious, the recent clincher was the shameful episode of the general carrying on the seizure of the Coca Cola distribution center (see “Gorillas in the Beer”). This image has gone around the world and has made such a great damage to Venezuelan reputation that I wonder at our possibilities of swift recovery assuming that Chavez were to leave tomorrow. And what could I tell to these people? I let you imagine all the embarrassing moments that myself and the few colleagues that made the trip went through at times.

What was more interesting was learning that the image of CNN has dropped a lot lately. Not only because the Venezuelan reporting among South Americans, but also for some of the Iraq approach. More and more people are not buying the news lines. The New York Times also seems to have some credibility problems of his own. And when I was in Baltimore my cab driver from Nigeria told me that the Washington Post was the one to read now. He seemed more informed than some of the people that I had met in Atlanta, including some South Americans that told me that we should just wait for Chavez term to expire. Incidentally I tried to contact someone on CNN but to no avail. I might try their web site now that I am back. What made me feel good was to see that BBC chose one of my comments posted there earlier for inclusion in a general assessment of the Venezuelan news. I even made it to the conclusion line of that article! I hate to say once more that the BBC seems more in touch with what is going on here.



Anyway, I reached the end of the show without too much trouble and could fly to Baltimore for two days of a well-deserved rest and change of scenery. Even though it was cold enough to freeze the local lakes. I did drink a lot of beer, something not to be found in Venezuela these days. Return was Monday in a plane carrying no more than 20% of its available seats. By the way, on the way to Atlanta the two days before the trade show it is very difficult to find a seat if one does not reserve by early December. This time, in spite of the cancellation threat by Delta, there were barely half of the seats taken. United has stopped its Venezuelan operations, American has cut down and I think that other companies are doing the same. And to add insult to injury, the American Embassy has indeed stopped emitting visas in Venezuela except for public officials on mission, and humanitarian reasons.

Well, I am back at home. We shall see.


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