Wednesday, February 12, 2003

LIFE AFTER “EL PARO”
Wednesday February 12, 2003

Thus, the strike endeth… But the oil strike continueth.

How is life in Venezuela these days? I am back in San Felipe after over two weeks away. The area still is calm. El Firmazo was a big hit here so it seems that all is pretty much said and done for us. We are just waiting to see what happens with the powers that be and wonder how it will ricochet on us. However, this peace is relative as the effects of what might be the worst economic crises in Venezuelan history are slowly but surely lapping at our provincial lives.

Yaracuy, I read in the paper today, is in the category of states not too affected. I shudder at what might be in more affected states. Now lines are always long when gas arrives. In early January lines were long but not as long as they are now. This is of course due to the fact that people are back to work and consumption is much more important. But are people really back at work? Some of the stores that had closed with the work stoppage early December have not reopened to date. And they do not seem to be reopening anytime soon. On my daily trip to work I also saw a store that did not close in December but it is closed now. There is no sign of a vibrant commercial sector.

At work, orders are down by half and with the currency exchange control we cannot purchase anything imported. Since more than half our raw materials are imported, we have little to do these days. Actually today I did not open the production part of the company, what for? The few orders that I have cannot be processed. I only had half of the clerical staff come in and catch up with their work. We will reopen tomorrow but until supply lines are not normalized we might be closing one to two days a week. Of course, we must keep paying employees full salaries. How long will we hold is anyone’s guess. The problem is that the government is making a big mess of the organization of the currency exchange control. All reports indicate that once the system is in place it will take between 1 to 2 months to process an importation license. We are not looking to receive any raw material until sometime late April. We can hold until then but after that some hard tough choices will have to be made.

It is of no consolation of course to know that other folks are in the same trouble. But today I heard from a friend that manufactures an upscale set of veggies and ready to serve salads, a product that should not be subject too much to the crisis at least at this point. Apparently they have not received a single order this week and decided to close for a day tomorrow so as not accumulate inventories of perishables. Even upscale people are feeling the pinch

I have gone grocery shopping. Cuba it is far from being. However, it is quite different than in early December. After two weeks of slow reactivation, the inventories are good but the variety is further down than in late January! That is, where you had an aisle full of, say, a dozen brands of laundry detergent, you have now the same amount of detergent except that 90% is one brand and 10 % the remains of two other brands. This is observed at many aisles, in particular the cookie aisle were only one of my 5 favorite type of cookies or crackers was back, while another that I had found a week ago was gone. More pathetically, the yogurt section has disappeared except for one brand that I do not particularly care for. Considering that 20% of what I eat is yogurt in different guises, I am not very happy. I still did buy some, and I will need to activate more frequently my yogurt maker. And get used to monochromatic aisles at the grocery stores. Should save time when shopping, I suppose.

Other details are worrisome. The elevator of my building has been broken for a week. The repair man cannot find the part. I suspect that the part is imported and the supplier is holding the sale, waiting for the exchange set up to decide on the new price. Meanwhile I should be happy that I have only four floors to climb. I keep hearing of little things like this all the time. Since Chavez has announced all around that no dollars would be provided to the enemies of the revolution one wonders who is going to get ‘em dollars. And what will be “revolutionary” imports…

Yes, life is sort of back to normal except that some things seem very changed, and probably for a long time. Advertisement for one has not recovered. The newspapers remain thin, and TV commercials are few except for the political announcements of the opposition keeping the opposition supporters charged. The air reeks of unburned gasoline. The imported stuff comes from winter production which is more volatile than summer production. One has a permanent upset stomach in Caracas. Meanwhile we keep hearing that “all will be normal within a few days”. Maybe they meant “months”?

We are starting to pay the price for our follies, and we still do not know if it would have been worth it. The amazing thing is that people are not complaining, except chavistas of course. We seem to have agreed that the strike was something worthwhile doing and that we must keep supporting the oil sector strike even as it brings chaos to our lives. I am afraid that our time of test is only starting.

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