Thursday, April 28, 2005

The chavista lifestyle

I was in Caracas these last few days and went out for dinner with a friend. We decided to try a restaurant in Las Mercedes (one of the two main dining out areas). What interested me in the one we chose was the huge terrace, facing a street intersection where the French embassy is located (this way people will know without having to mention it).

The street level was a large AC area, packed, exceedingly noisy, with a huge bar area with people that seemed right out of office (they had ties on). The upper level was much quieter, the terrace was nice but the decoration had a je ne sais quoi of nouveau riche that gave me a hint as to the kind of place I was. Any doubt was removed when I saw the menu: >90% meat or fish dishes, less than 10% salads and deserts. We were in a chavista restaurant. I do not eat much meat and even less at night so I settled for a salad. I could not finish it, it was not that fresh and the dressing was tasteless. A restaurant where salads are rarely asked for, where customers do not know better. My friend could not finish his salad either.

Chavista restaurants?

Over the recent years with the changes in public administration and the in the flow of money, the ruling patron class has changed. But not without problems. What happened is that the new political group that arrived into office does not have the cultural background to enjoy the fine dining of Caracas. They did not have the money before and now they mean to enjoy it as if there were no tomorrow. Nothing new actually: we saw that phenomenon in the 60ies when AD arrived into office and replaced the old planter and old boy's classes inherited from Gomez time. Even in the 70ies the jokes kept running on the AD country bumpkins. I will recall the famous joke on the wife of Carlos Andres in his first term, who ordered, supposedly, mortadela con patilla when everyone else was ordering jamón con melón. Sartorial and epicurean prejudice are nothing new in Venezuela. (1)

However this time there is a difference: the divisiveness that Chavez has brought to the country has generated the phenomenon of rejection between the old class and the new "boliburguesia" instead of the grudging slow integration we saw a generation ago (2). Soon chavismo was not welcome in Caracas fine restaurants, by the public that is. Glass hitting with the knives rose to a noise level that resulted in guests ending up in either a fist fight or with the chavista personality leaving the premises. Some moments were particularly scandalous either by the shameless attacks from the opposition guests or the stupid reprisals of chavismo on some restaurants who were unable control the situation.

The solution of course was for a few entrepreneurs to create the chavista restaurant. Just as the one I described. I know at least three like those ones, and I suspect of at least 4 or 5 more. They tend to have opened no more than 3 years ago (though some have gone chavista long ago such as a famous meat place in Las Mercedes which parking was often full during the strike of 2002 and which is still covered with pictures of famous adecos visiting in past decades). On a Tuesday night they are the ones full even if their food sucks. Their menu is based on meat and potato, and some fish. Their cuisine is not great, but their Scotch card is better than their wine list. And there is a certain character within the crowd that is not seen elsewhere in more established restaurants. As we were seating on the terrace edge with a view on the arriving cars I counted two luxury convertible cars, imported cars that is, something that I had not seen in years in a Caracas night (3). And half of the cars in that place were no more than 2-3 years old, with a sizable chunk of expensive cars.

When we left by curiosity I drove in front of a couple of "traditional" and gastronomic restaurants of Las Mercedes: they had the expected crowd for a Tuesday night, a dozen cars at most, parked neatly in front. The restaurant where we were was creating a traffic jam on its own, and not by people rushing out from the lousy food.

Now, before I am accused to write an elitist post I would like to remind the reader of my French origins that I honor: I will go to any dive if the food is good and the safety reasonable. I really could not care less whether the chef or the cook is chavista, as long as I delight my palate. But I must report what I observe about the fast evolving Caracas night scene.

Fast cars

So what to think about that new display of wealth, from the new if not very tasteful restaurants to the obscenely expensive cars? Well, it is indeed sudden. As it turns out we got help today to understand the new social reality. Decifrado and Miami Herald report a very interesting fait divers. The son of a director of the actual PDVSA pseudo management has had a car accident in Key Biscayne (it seems that chavistas like Miami as much as anti chavistas). The passenger died. This would be sad enough by itself but the details that followed make it scandalous. The car was a Lamborghini Gallardo 2005 whose price list is 175 000 US dollars, a car normally reserved to older gents trying to impress younger chicks, gents without any financial trouble after a long life amassing money. But it gets better. Bail for 100 000 USD was promptly posted. Did Dad bank out 100 000 that easily from Venezuela where we are under currency control exchange and where folks are allocated only 4 000 USD to satisfy all of their travel needs in a year? Inquiring minds want to know.

I was thinking about those expensive convertibles I saw last night, one of them driven by someone that could not have been more than 30 years old. Let's see, Chavez announced the new minimal wage of 188 USD per month (144 at street real market exchange). That car I saw cost at least 70 000 USD plus import taxes. The Lamborghini 175 000 USD. That is, 121 Venezuelan workers gave one year income, at the new minimal wqage, for the Lamborghini and the bail. The PDVSA director lost through his son the earnings of 121 Venezuelan workers in a year. 159 workers at the real currency exchange rate. Plus a few to pay for the insurance. In social democratic countries pay check spread is no more than 7 to 10 times from the janitor to the CEO. In a social democratic country only the president of Polar and a couple of other business can afford a Lamborghini, not their sons who will have to settle for the convertible Audi I saw last night. I do not recall any of the fired PDVSA management having owned Lamborghini, but maybe a reader can point out to such a similar scandal....

Boliburguesia. And some still believe ...

=== === === === === === ===

(1) Mortadela is a cheap ersatz of reconstituted meat sold as a ham substitute as it comes in large cylinders that can be sliced just like ham; and patilla is water melon, the fruit of the poor. Of course, Parma ham and cantaloupe (the jamón con melon) is a long established gourmet delicacy.

(2) Chavez has been diligent in trying to subsidize the rapid growth of a "deals" class who gets all government contracts. The sudden climb to riches of a few people has created the term "boliburguesia", a pun on bolivarian and bourgeois. Nothing new under the sun, again.

(3) For security reasons convertibles are not used in Venezuela. People that own them use it only to go to visit friends or valet parking places. There is no way you can leave a convertible parked in the street. It is really, really, a toy for the very, very rich. Or very very tacky.

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