Saturday, June 14, 2003

VENEZUELA, CIRCA 2003
June 14, 2003

Before Chavez election in 1998 there had been a continuous but slow deterioration in the quality of life in Venezuela. With these four years of Chavez administration it would actually be simplistic to just say that things got worse. They have, but it is more complex than that. The new element in our everyday life is the institutionalization of chaos as a daily factor in our lives. And this has become quite dramatic since April 2002. The facts that bring this new instability are quite simple: serious economical recession that started already at the end of 2001, political uncertainty as of April 2002 which aggravated the recession, and further deepening with the general strike of December 2002. The exchange control established in January 22 is pretty much bleeding to death the private sector. These controls might have started as “revenge on the private sector” icing on the cake but now have become the main culprit of our economical and social situation.

So, how is life in this first real rainy days of our wet season?

GROCERY SHOPPING

A casual observer would find the supermarket shelves full. A more careful observation will detect that where you used to have wheat flour, corn flour, rice and sugar which are generally stocked together in Venezuela, you will see now only rice and sugar. Full, but only two items. Whole chickens are also rare in supermarkets. And a few more items seem to make only cameo appearances. The result of dollar starvation and price control policies on selected items.

But go to the street vendors or the small “abastos” sort of Mom and Pop shops. And you will find the coveted chicken at higher prices than the official one, and you might even find corn flour, this corner stone of the Venezuelan diet, used to make the ever present arepa. The reason? INDECU, an official organization that supposedly protects consumers has been targeting supermarkets to make sure they do not overshoot the unrealistic imposed price controls. They cannot be bothered of course with “the people” that peddles at prices sometimes twice as high as the controlled prices. All for show of course and the supermarkets cannot be bothered so if they cannot sell at least at cost, they just do not sell it anymore. Not to mention that the providers are selling at a loss so why bother producing?

The poor end up, as usual, the most affected by these virtual controls. But what about those supposedly “well off” like myself? Yes, I eat very little meat, and even less chicken. And being on a constant diet I avoid arepa. But I do buy olive oil for example. This non-controlled item is imported outside of the fixed currency value of 1600 to the US dollar. The black market value for US dollar this week was teetering around 2500. My olive oil went up from 6500 a liter to 18 000 a liter. I will have you note that my paycheck did not go up three fold. Actually, it did not go up at all this year. Other items in my grocery cart are not imported but suffered hefty price increases, such as yogurt which went up by 25% in the last three months. At least all my favorite brands are back! Oh! And it is not over yet: the Central Bank has admitted 8% inflation just for May.

OTHER SHOPPING

I would not know. Because of my years in the US and the sizes I use I tended to keep shopping there, though this might be over. In my rare past shopping attempts for clothes in Caracas, I found items rather expensive. I wonder how things are now. However I can tell you one thing, the workers under my supervision are not as neatly dressed as before. I can tell it has been a long time since they have bought new outfits. This is noticeable in Venezuela where people take rather great pride in their personal appearance at all social levels, it is the country of the misses I shall remind you! The deterioration seems to be here to stay as no economical improvement can be foreseen.

The medicine front seems rather grave. TV is full of stories of people that cannot find their medication, or cannot afford them if they were to find them. So far I am lucky on this side, but I have noticed that the headache medicine I buy now comes in only one presentation when it used to come in three presentations!. When I can find it….

And forget about books or CD. My Venezuelan credit cards are blocked for US dollars, no more Amazon shopping. And since most books in the local bookstores are imported I let you imagine how expensive they are now. Well, that is not quite true. If you compare the dollar price today with the dollar price a year ago, coffee table books are a bargain for those disposing of dollar incomes.

GOING OUT AT NIGHT

You do not anymore. Or at least you go to safe areas, and not too late if possible. The security problem is really becoming scary. Venezuela is well under way according to statistics to pass last year per capita rate of murder. A rate that put us in the Americas second only to Colombia, a country that happens to have a real civil war, mind you!

However, when you hit that restaurant you might think twice before getting in: the price list has experienced quite a hike too. Yet, restaurants in posh areas of Caracas are doing good business. The reason is very simple: people cannot afford to travel as much as they used to but they still have a significant income that they must spend before inflation eats it away. So they eat out. Conclusion: you wince when you see the Menu, but you order.

Movies are open, and actually one of the few bargains for middle class folks. Lower classes have given up on movies for a while already. However, this is not going to last much. Studios keep sending movies to Venezuela although they cannot get their dollars out. They assume, I suppose, that at one point they will be able to do so. But if the controls persist I suspect that the movie experience might change for Venezuela.

After diner and movie you might want to go with your date to some nightclub. I do not do so since it would be too late and not safe enough to really enjoy staying out late. But for those that do so it has become a new experience. Scotch, the primordial drink in Venezuelan discos has quite increased its price. Local drinks are experiencing a come back of sorts. And the disco clientele is perhaps as upper-class as it has ever been!

The people that are supposed to be helped by Chavez are definitely the ones with less fun these days, if fun is defined as the ability to go out at night. But even in the lower classes neighborhood where folks could go to “botiquines” or “tascas” to have a few drinks with their pals, things might not be as lively as they used to be. These areas are actually the ones plagued by crime the most. And local beer went up.

WATCHING TV

Since you cannot go shopping, cannot go out, you can still have the solace of watching TV. That is if you can afford cable TV. Otherwise you are faced with two type of free broadcasts that are rather unpalatable.

The state TV has become a propaganda machine. Most of it is comprised of talk shows where pro-Chavez commentators follow a clear script. The few distractions are an occasional sporting presentation or an old, old movie. Or even a weird soap opera from Portugal or Japan. And at any time you might be cut by an official event from Chavez who now has broadcast any single inauguration, conference or what not event he attends. Even the morning activities for women are weird: the guests can be cooking teachers from “popular areas” trying to show “alternative” ways to cook (read, without the staples the government seems unable to produce or let flow).

On the other side the private networks have totally succumbed to their anti-Chavez position, some times bordering hysteria. They certainly have their reasons and now that Chavez is trying to push a law to control them they are playing all their cards. Fair is fair. Unfortunately for Chavez they show quite a lot of live coverage where they show wide shots of what happens in the streets during marches or riots. Images speak by themselves. The state TV interestingly shows these same events only with closed shots that can be manipulated easily. At least these networks still manage to show some other less heavy stuff, such as Brazilian soap operas or movies not too old. And their talk shows are definitely much better crafted than the governmental ones since most pros have defected to the opposition and Chavez TV has to content itself with inexperienced guys to mount their productions. Though sometimes I wonder if they do not make a point to be less glossy than the private networks, all for the “revolutionary” spirit.

EXPECTATIONS?

None really. Even if Chavez were to leave office tomorrow, the damage done would take quite a long time to be compensated.

Life has clearly become quite harder for the lower and middle classes. Poverty has increased quite a lot after a brief improvement in the first months of Chavez rule. Upper classes are also hurting for the first time in many years. This might satisfy some, but whether people like it, it is the money that upper classes spread around that makes many a store function adequately, not to mention the jobs they provide. But in Chavez vision of society, we all go down first, and then stay there, happy to watch our beloved leader perorate. He is halfway there.

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