Thursday, August 14, 2003

AUGUST IN YARACUY

August 14, 2003

The rains have been with us now since June. Even though they never quite leave Yaracuy, this year was drier than usual and we needed them. Now the valley of the Yaracuy is at its lushest green, reminding us why Yaracuy is known amongst Venezuelan painters for its unique palette of greens. Sugar cane is high, mangoes have come and gone. The humid heat has become oppressive as the sea breezes have dropped to their aestival low. The air conditioning comes in handy at night.

All back to normal? Not really.

Quite often in the morning when I arrive at work there are people waiting for the “boss”, asking for jobs. This is rarer know, eventually people have realized that we had not been hiring since last year, even the to replace the few resignations we had.

The workers are anxious. Mid January when we reopened after “El Paro”, on directions from pour main offices in Caracas I gave a little speech trying to re-assure our workers that the company was still sound in spite of a year of economic chaos and that payroll was safe until May. We are in August, dollars from the control exchange commission are not flowing as they should and orders have continuously dropped. Workers are idle half of the week in general and they are getting scared, realizing that I had not lied and that the time of reckoning might be near. I do not know what to tell them since I have no idea what our fate is. What I do know is that our fate is linked to our clients and they are having problems.

What is scarier is that in the San Felipe industrial zone we are the only business that “seems” to be running, and our workers know very well that if we must make a lay-off they likely will not be able to find a job. Certainly not with our neighbors that have had less qualms about laying off than we did. Really, we have a good team, a team where the most recent worker has already 2 years with us and we are reluctant to break it, not to mention our sense of responsibility for them. But how long can we hold?

On more mundane aspects things have acquired a strange new “normalcy”. The grocery stores have become experts at hiding the holes on their shelves. Now, the alley were corn and wheat floor were stocked has been taken over by rice and sugar. Wheat flour has disappeared from the shelves for two months now, the few that gets into the country being shipped directly to bakeries and pasta makers. Little baking at home these days. One of the ubiquitous bread brand available in the stores is from a company that has decided to play its future with the government, even appearing in official events. That is a good way to get dollars I suppose. And I suppose that we will all take this road if we want to keep in business. At least until we can vote on the recall election.

Corn flour, the staple of Venezuelan diet is really becoming a problem. Since its price is controlled, the large chains have stopped selling it because they cannot recoup their costs. To avoid political sanction, grocery store chains purchase small amounts. A couple of large packs will arrive at the store on occasion, and skip the shelving process as they are opened directly on the floor. People grab two packs per capita and within minutes it is all gone. A family of five goes through one bag of corn flour in two days.

I have entered into a strange bartering agreement. I use on occasion a little bit of yellow corn flour. Most people in Venezuela eat only the white corn floor (which by the way is very different than in the US or Mexico since it is a pre-cooked variety specially designed to make Arepas, our local variety of corn bread and Venezuela’s gift to gastronomy). I find yellow flour to have a heartier taste that I favor for the arepas that I make at home. Now, whenever I see white flour I buy my allowance, bring the bags at work and barter it for yellow flour if someone can find it. Or just resell it to my colleagues that depend on Arepas. A little bit like in the old USSR. I just hope that it will not go further than corn flour.

Other items are missing of course, or have acquired stranger aspects. For example my UHT brand of milk has lost its pouring opening. Now I have to cut the edge with scissors again. The only brand that still has the specially imported pouring device is another brand that has linked its fate to the Revolution. And I do not like its taste. So I will keep cutting the edges of my old brand which will probably go chavista at some point to be able to import the plastic devices without trouble.

One thing we can still be thankful for is that the crime wave that is besotting the country has not reached Yaracuy with the same intensity. Things are worse of course. A water bottling plant a block from us was attacked at payroll last month. Recently at night somebody tried to steal the metal name plate of my apartment building to resell for scrap metal. He was heard at 2 AM and one of my neighbors got his gun and caught the guy. Big scandal in the street, people half naked out of bed, a couple of shots in the air for good measure and after half an hour eventually a police car came and took the thief. The pieces of the sign were collected in a bag and now there are only two letters on our front. Somewhere a bag lays miserable with the scrap metal wanna-be other letters.

If this sign of misery, literally, is almost risible, other signs are less. The newest racket, in San Felipe, are car “vigilantes”. You cannot park anywhere downtown without coming back to your car and finding a little cardboard that claims your car is watched. Some guy just pops out to remove the card as you get into your car and of course you are expected to give some small change. At least we are not yet pestered by all these kids that at busy intersections of big cities try to clean your windows with a bottle of dirty water.

But if these new “offices” are created with the crisis, they also come along with an increase in petty larceny. More and more stores in San Felipe are having personnel just to watch customers, when not an outright uniformed guard. In big cities bang robberies are peaking again. And the national weekly murder rate is stable in the 70-80 body count. This all on TV, and San Felipe is scared waiting for the local body count to go up anytime. Going out alone at night in erstwhile quiet San Felipe is now something you think about. I would like to know how is the cable TV industry faring these days.

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