Thursday, November 12, 2009

Post War Venezuela

I cannot claim the originality of the tile for this post: I owe it my father who I heard as early as 2004 telling us to prepare ourselves because a post Chavez era would be like a post war situation for Venezuela. Though I did sense what he meant, I did not think that we would be living in a post war atmosphere with Chavez still in office. Thus this post as homage to my prescient father.

Certainly my parents do not deserve what is going on in Venezuela today. After all they did live through Nazi occupied France, my father as a precocious teenager understanding very well what was going on. If the realities cannot be compared at all, the mood and the consequences of Chavez war on its people can well sustain the comparison with the ones that France woke up to in 1945. That is what my father clearly alludes to when he speaks of an “après guerre” coming to Venezuela. The war in all of its uncertainties is still fought on, but who knows for how long.

When I came back from my September trip I got into a rather somber mood. Not only visiting the US on a strict holiday plan allowed me to see better how the gap is deepening between Occidental civilization and chavista regression, but I came back with a respiratory illness that made me visit doctors a few times. Nothing life threatening, no swine whatever, be assured, but very annoying and debilitating nevertheless. The hours of wait to see doctors gave me a chance to think about what I had seen in the West Coast and what I found back in Caracas and San Felipe.

Venezuela indeed has entered a profound decline. The casual observer arriving at Maiquetia airport will be confronted first to a giant poster of Chavez at the immigration line, foretelling the banana republic awaiting him across the line. The second confrontation will be with the “buhoneros”, street vendors, now at the very gate of the airport exit, where the Nazional Guard has stopped any pretense at establishing a fake order, including on the chaotic traffic. Going up to Caracas on the highway you are shocked at how many holes dot such a major highway, an impression made only worse when driving through Caracas, which makes you wonder if the city has been bombed recently.

There are many things that you can observe for yourself. For example it is now obvious how Venezuela has become a fortified ghetto society. The home with an open front backyard has long ceased to exist. What is new now is the increased height of security walls, more and more topped with electric wiring. Gated streets with a guard station at the entrance are now routine, even in lower middle class neighborhoods. Less obvious but quite clear when you travel outside of Caracas is how normal it is becoming to prepare for power outages and how people have learned to live with buckets of water stored around the home since the faucets are more often dry than wet. Caracas newspapers now carry on their front page the daily shortage schedule for water. But for the rest you need to live on a day to day basis to really understand how our quality of life has degraded, at all levels, for all of us.

I had to wait until a Monday to see a doctor because now there are very few of them that receive on Friday. Any suffering you have must be treated through emergency services from Thursday to Monday. Without health insurance, or a platinum credit card to pay in advance, you will not be helped unless you arrive with your hand holding your other severed hand.

I went to fancy Clinica Metropolitana which is the closest from where I live. By 9 AM the huge parking lot is full so if you arrive later you better take a cab to go. By 10 AM the clinic is a circus, overcrowded with people at an almost unsafe level (though miraculously a semblant of hygiene is maintained!). The crowds are not anymore the “white bourgeois” of yore, now you will see even public workers sporting their red shirt themed uniforms. Most have now health insurance paid by the state, a very clear admission that Barrio Adentro 1, and 2 and 3 and whatever, have failed, are not good enough for the government to send there its very own workers! The reason why the clinic is so full is because not a single major clinic has been built in Caracas in ten years, no new major hospital has been built (except for a cardiopathy hospital for children supposedly open to all children in South America) and the existing hospitals are simply collapsing. Whoever can come up with some money goes to a private clinic; hospitals are now left for the poor, having become in practical terms poor houses. I suppose in a way it promoted racial and social integration through sickness...

Do not think that this scene is only for Caracas. I did not improve much and as such had to go see another doctor in San Felipe since I was not in any state to go back to Caracas see my first one. The diagnostic was the same, different medications were tried and finally two weeks ago I started experiencing some improvement, able to tolerate A.C. enough to go back to work a very few hours a day. But waiting for hours in the Policlinica San Felipe was equally a sobering experience: a good third of the people hanging around were local public employees, more red shirts even than in Caracas!

The Policlinica is a rather small affair compared to what you have in Caracas, but it was designed to be the top San Felipe could afford 20 years ago. At least San Felipe has been able to afford two newer private clinics, one even with a scanner, the first one. And all are equally crowded as the San Felipe hospital became under the last chavista governor one of the Venezuelan hospitals in worse shape.
A consequence is the callousness of service people now becoming the norm in Venezuela, too few services, too many people requesting it. Maybe it is more obvious in health care but go and try to get any legal papers, from an ID card to a notary legal deed: it is always a Calvary that is only too often made briefer through bribing. For example, personally, I have yet to receive my new driving license. I applied for it early this year and I am now up to my second extension of my “provisional” certificate. Paradoxically amused by the whole thing as I remember that whenever I moved within the US I got my driver license on the same day I applied for it, driving code test included.

Everything in Venezuela is now a trial, from getting health care to finding the right medicine since you need to go often to more than one pharmacy if your prescription holds three items or more. Let’s not even talk costs, as only from my Caracas visit and treatment I spent in one day the equivalent of the national monthly minimum wage.

Living is difficult in so many ways. You have always to watch for water, electricity, security. Food is not too bad lately. There is still a scarcity of many things but for some reason they seem to rotate better among stores so it is less obvious. And we all learned to purchase enough to have some stock at home of what can be stocked. We just have been adding more candles to our shopping list and bought large extra plastic cans for water storage.

There are more prayers you need to make. For example you do not want you car to break down as spare parts are increasingly hard to find. People stories of weeks with their car stopped are now a routine tale. On spare parts is where you feel the most inflation: any minor car service is now equivalent to a monthly minimum wage, even if your insurance covers part of it. Yet, it does not matter how hard you try to preserve your car, it is in danger as soon as you drive. Besides the hole poked roads there is a new increasing danger, jalopies all around you that do not even bother to make sure that their brake lights function. Nobody follows anymore the elemental norms of secure driving, and it is a rare event when you see actually a traffic cop to put some order in the chaos. Driving security is now limited, at least outside of Caracas, to police barrages set only to check out for what cars carry, and to try to extort the innocent driver stopped there for minor faults. Needless to say that day time robbery of cars, in particular during traffic congestion are climbing fast. You are stopped in a traffic jam, someone knocks at you window with a gun. What do you do?

I can keep going with this litany of all what is wrong with Venezuela today, but I am sure that the patient reader that accompanied me so far gets the point. What might not be obvious, unless you have time to meditate on it as you wait for hours in line to be served at some facility, is that this mess cannot be fixed easily. People have gotten used to it, choices have dramatically diminished, and we are now more than ever in the realm of “take it or leave it”. Just to solve any of these problems that I reported above would require a massive governmental action, well managed, focused. Take for example fixing the potholes that scar all of Venezuela roads. It would take years not only to fix them, but to build the new necessary roads now that all those inherited by Chavez have collapsed under traffic. That is true, except for one highway in Barinas, a bridge over the Orinoco, in ten years Chavez has not built a mile of the crucial roads that are required for a country which has seen its car numbers more than double. Along, none of the freight trains promised is working, nor are we expecting them to work for a few more years.

In soon ten years, Chavez not only has not built what would have been necessary for the population increase of Venezuela, but he has not maintained what was already built, letting it rot. Look for example at the deterioration of so many public buildings that reflect dramatically the deterioration of so many private buildings short of funds to do their own upkeep. The impression of general decay now floats everywhere, exacerbated often by the increasing neglect of the people who more and more throw their garbage in the street, just like that. In fact, the very few bright spots may make the decay even more obvious!

These end of year crisis are confronting us to the harsh reality that not only we might have wasted fully a decade, and the largest oil income of our history, but that we might have gotten to be worse off than what we were in 1998.
But perhaps the very worst part is the deliberate degradation of the people’s mentality, the forcing of us to live under these new circumstances while we are told that they are normal. Just last Saturday I had in San Felipe a prime example on how far people are now accepting their dependence from the regime (and yet another opportunity missed for great pictures as I was not carrying anything with me). The local governor is promoting himself ahead of the PSUV internal “elections”. Thus he organized a large subsidized food distribution show in downtown San Felipe, taking 4 blocks of 2da Avenida. On one side there were 4 large tents in red and white (logos do not show well on a red background, you know, so some white is needed). In the first tent people stood up in line until they could reach a set of chairs (plastic red, of course). There, every so often, as the line advanced, they were asked to move up to closer chairs. Then they would reach the end of the chair line and get a shopping cart and push it in front of a series of tables where duly uniformed governmental officers would allocate them goods. At the end they would still stand in line for a while until they could pay their purchases. All that time the noise of slogans of a Cuban nature even if with Venezuelan themes made sure people knew who to thank for, with the occasional interjection of a “ Patria, Socialismo o Muerte”.

Nobody seemed to mind, nor for sure would have they dared to express anything until their loot was secured.

On the other side there were hundreds of large blue plastic containers (when will they be red?). Each must contain around 200 gallons of water. And each with a white sticker, red letters, letting people know that the revolution does advance under our new chavista governor, Julio Leon Heredia. Nobody of course wondered how come the government has decided to sell blue plastic tanks instead of doing its work of building dams, digging wells and maintaining water distribution through pipes…. Forget about sanitation: I moved a year ago and already I have had to have my water reservoir cleaned twice for all the mud that comes along, in spite of all the filtering system I installed.

This is what we are at now, too many people expecting for the government to pay for their insurance, to offer them discounted food and to provide them with plastic water storage, and finding all of that perfectly normal, perhaps even desirable for some. Not realizing of course that each day the regime controls more and more their lives, their needs, their “shopping” schedule and even their bathing.

We have a whole country to rebuild, materially and morally. And to destroy it we did not need a war against another country, the war of the government against the people who voted it in was enough.
Après guerre, indeed…

-The end-

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