Saturday, January 14, 2006

The field guide for the Bolivarian Socialism for the XXI Century


This morning I went for my round of weekly shopping. I was not disappointed. Not only the nefarious effect of price control on some goods are becoming visible, but I even started seeing the effects of the collapsed bridge. Thus the idea of this field guide of sorts, on things not reported by CNN, the NYT or chavista media. All in San Felipe, the state capital of Yaracuy, on today’s date (click on them to enlarge).

The coffee line

Coffee has been missing from the shelves since December (see picture further below). The reason is that the government decided to increase the price paid to producer of green beans, but still refuses to let the roasting and distribution folks to pass the added cost. Apparently true revolutionaries are nauseated by the idea of profit, even as they have now enough money to buy nice Caracas condos. It also seems that they have trouble understanding that no one on their free will buys at 100 to resell at 90. As a result the government seized the roasted coffee in stock, paid the manufacturer the “regulated” price (too bad if they do not have enough money to replenish their stocks), and through Mercal they set up “selling points” where people are forced to buy a package containing coffee and goods that the government wants probably to get rid of from its Mercal overstocks (1).

Now, they could sell directly this at Mercal, but nooooo! In a fit of publicity stunt that one is hard pressed to understand, while even some Mercal shelves as of this week end are reported missing coffee, they prefer to set in many towns a single visible line of coffee seekers, such as the one shown below (above is the close up). I suppose it is all part of the plan to set in people minds that their food comes from Chavez will. Got that Volk?

At Central Madeirense

San Felipe only real supermarket is a “Central Madeirense”, the large Venezuelan chain established, like very other food chain it seems, from people from Madeira. They are now the only nation wide system (and thus in the eye of chavistas who resent “foreign” interference). I go there because it is the one with the best choice, and produce that can only be found there. That is, by Yaracuy standards it is the only real “cosmopolitan” store as Yaracuyanos are slow to warm up to such exotic things as fresh lettuce.

I did take my camera today and photographed a few shelves. This first one on the right is where the coffee was supposed to stand. As you can observe, there is a wide variety of lousy Lipton tea, some local brand hardly any better (OK, I am a tea snob, so sue me!), and even imports of Celestial Seasonings and Coffee Mate, this one rather incongruous as coffee is missing. Not even imported Colombian instant decaf!!!!! The last one to disappear in a caffeine addicted country!

The picture on the left is from another item which has been missing lately. Whole powder milk price is a big “political” issue. However in recent years more and more people have started consuming skim milk. That variety of milk is not controlled and is basically the only one always available now. However, years of Bolivarian control have started limiting the choices of milk. In the picture you can see only one brand of milk available, though with three presentations, two of them of skim milk (with or without added stuff). Observe that the whole milk is the one in lesser amount!

A couple of aisles down we reach the rice and bean shelves. These are very important as they are main staples in the Venezuelan diet, in particular in the provinces. Not to mention that black beans are considered THE Venezuelan favorite bean included in the national dish “Pabellon, con o sin baranda” (2). On the left in bright fuchsia I have circled what used to be the bean section which included black, navy, green, pinto, and which is reduced to a remain of chick pea, some red beans and the usual amount of lentil. To look less desolated the store replaced the missing beans by rice. There was a time when stores would leave the shelf empty for people to see, but in these days of SENIAT repression and “all is rosy” propaganda, it is better not to attract the attention of public “servants” that are shopping (3).

Thus basic staples of the Venezuelan diet are starting to miss, sporadically perhaps, but more and more frequently. A way to get people used to socialism and ration cards? Just wondering… But people with a more exotic diet such as myself are being hit elsewhere even if we drink little coffee and only use skim milk. I got shocked when the imported cereal I buy to add to my evening yogurt increased 20%, 20%!, from last time I bought it two weeks ago. Is this the collapsed viaduct effect? Since Central Madeirense and its supplier import most of their stuff through La Güaira, are they already anticipating the dramatic increase in shipping costs from La Güaira to Caracas? Well, at least I am fixed for “my” inflation for the year, it will not be the rosy 14% anticipated by Giordani. And let’s see if the beans only increase by 14% when they return, someday, soon, anytime now.

Driving back home

There is a now well established racket in San Felipe. Wherever you park your car, when you return there is a little ill cut card board, hand written, tucked under your windshield wiper. Some guy appears, removes it and waits for you to give him some coins for having “watched for” your car safety. Some are kids, or old people, or handicapped and I doubt very much they would oppose any significant resistance if someone wanted to get inside my car… Four years ago this “line of business” did not exist in San Felipe. But as the revolution advances fearlessly for the betterment of the country I suppose that these people are part of the "newly employed" that the government claims to have generated. When I look at these brave but unfortunate souls, I do not need to wonder whether they subscribe to social security.

And so I drive back home and pass in front of the main State Office building. A few weeks ago a new sign was placed to “grace” its rather non descript concrete design. The sign is of Chavez and Governor Gimenez in full drag regalia. Now, I cannot help but wonder how come there is money for such a lousy, tacky, useless sign, but no money to subsidize the coffee producers or the truck drivers of La Güaira route whose income has been more than halved. Where is the austerity of a government dedicated to the betterment of the poor? Under Lapi there was an occasional sign with his face, personality cult is always part of countries with a past "caudillo" culture. But this quaint tradition is becoming ridiculous under Gimenez whose now obvious shortcomings he tries to dissimulate by posing everywhere with Chavez.

There is no austerity in this administration. Excessive spending goes from the luxury suits worn by Chavez to the 167 (declared) brand new lap tops bought for the new National Assembly representatives. Yes, they make much, much more money than I do and they got, without even asking for it, a new lap top, the same HP model I bought with some sacrifice last month since my previous lap top was stolen, courtesy of the out of control criminality that we suffer now. Because in spite of a “booming” economy, less and less jobless people, criminality is at an all time high, largely underestimated as many people do not even bother anymore to report when their house is broken in or they are mugged in the street in broad daylight.

And are the people getting anything, besides a lap top, that is, if you had the good luck to run unopposed for office? My housekeeper, a luxury one can still have in Venezuela, got sick early December. She suffers from congenital high cholesterol level even if she is rather thin, giving her chronic dizziness. I am the only person she works for as she is a “barrio” seamstress and only use this job for her steady income. She works for me because I live alone and I travel a lot and I need someone to take care of my cat, plants et al, because I pay her way above the average in San Felipe (eliciting even comments from my neighbors who think I am ruining the market) and because she is a good cook and I bring from Caracas lots of interesting stuff for her to play with. In other words, if you must do house cleaning and cooking twice a week, you could do much worse than working for me in San Felipe.

Well, Señora A. went first to her local “dispensario” (4). After one day and no improvment, she went to the hospital. There she was redirected to the local Barrio Adentro “clinic”, to see the “Cubans” (5). In her own words she described to me how neat was the new clinic, in much better shape than the hospital, better equipped, all nice and new. Even the attention was fine if rather short. They examined her briefly, gave her a pill and that was that. Two days after, the desperate woman caved in and went to see a private doctor who gave her an electro cardiogram and a complete exam, finally. And some rather expensive tablets to buy. But 48 hours after she did not need help to walk anymore. In January she resumed work. I gave her a larger than usual end of year bonus that Señora A. used all for her health. If she was the only one with Barrio Adentro problems I would not worry too much, but most of the employees at work go to Barrio Adentro as a last resort or to get aspirin and such common medication for free. They go to the Red Cross "dispensario" first.

Tomorrow?

The degradation of the country is becoming more and more visible, from collapsing infrastructure to coffee lines. The government tries to put a brave face and even tries to use the set backs it creates by its incompetence to its advantage (As Castro would say “convertir el revés en victoria!”). Oh yes, we are much better off than in Cuba, at least our shelves are still full, if only of rice and tea, at least we can still go to private practice when we get desperate, but the new National Assembly is a thing to fear as more and more controls will be produced by the archaic mentality that has now taken over.

The signs are there, you just need to observe.

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1) Mercal: state owned and managed food distribution scheme. Some say it is a way to teach people to eat sub par quality food items, to get used to limited choice, to learn how to stand in line until you get in. I think there is an exaggeration, but definitely Mercal is designed to have a group of people become dependent of the state for their basic dry staples.

2) Pabellon: minced meat stew (kind of like a distant parent of the Southern BBQ), rice, black beans are the basis. "con baranda" means the "deluxe" version. It come then accompanied of fried plantain and possibly avocado and a fried egg.

3) SENIAT: Venezuela tax agency, widely used against the enemies of the regime.

4) Dispensario: small health centers installed where there were no hospitals. They are the precursor of the Barrio Adentro joints even if the government refuse to acknowledge that debt to the past democracy. They were rather successful in the 60ies and even 70ies but they were not as much later as they failed to be built in the new population growth areas. Some of the new "barrio adentro" are in fact recycled dispensarios.

5) Barrio Adentro: one of the two social programs of Chavez that can really claim some success. The idea was to staff small units deep inside the barrios with Cuban doctors. Highly controversial and of uncertain future as they rely on too much on Cuban "doctors" whose competence seem in fact for some to be barely equal a nurse. Probably the effect of overstretching the reach of the program.

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