I have been back a few days from my most recent visit to Caracas and I have been trying to put my thoughts together, without being able to form a single image of what is going on. What is clear though, is that things seem to be changing at a fast pace now in all aspects of Venezuelan life.
Despite the fact that I was only gone five weeks, longer than normal, there was a significant change in shortages, lines and general food availability.
Take lines, for example. Lines at large supermarkets, like Bicententario, have been around for a while. But now it seems as if there are lines anywhere where something useful may be bought, from supermarkets, bodegas or from drugstores to bakeries. And as shortages have become more acute, people displace themselves across the city in the hope of finding something. (These movement is not restricted to bachaqueros, just anyone looking for something they need)
The change for bakeries, as an example, has been dramatic. I found few that actually had bread and since it was known that they had none, there were no lines in front. Some, like my favorite bakery in Los Palos Grandes, did not even open for the whole week I was there. And the one closest to where I stay, had lines all the time I went by, but I did not bother to check what they were selling.
It was good for dieting, particularly if you are trying to avoid carbohydrates. Last time I was there, restaurants always had bread. This time, at one restaurant they apologized for not having any bread, at another one they had Swedish bread, the flat bread that is hard, made of wheat, whole wheat and rye and which you can still find at some supermarkets. While Polar has said that it is running out of corn flour and indeed, it has become hard to find it, areperas seem to have enough stock, with all of them open, even if some fillings are not necessarily available.
Milk is a different matter. People in my office report not having had cereal for weeks, unless they want to pay up for almond milk, available in some supermarkets at what is an outrageous price given salaries down there. After dinners, the first question I would ask was whether they had milk or not to make a marroncito for me. Half the time the answer was negative, but at least one time I could taste the undesirable flavor of powdered milk in the coffee. I simply prefer to avoid drinking it that way. But I understand that even powdered milk is becoming a problem, one of the upsetting aspect of shortages for families with small kids.
You can find eggs now, at a new much higher price, while meat exhibits some scarcity, but prices are simply out of control and you can find some good quality cuts if you are willing to pay.
One of the biggest sources of social conflict is the dynamics of lines. Much like the riots that took place last week near the Presidential Palace, when a bunch of pro-Government supporters tried to divert a truck heading to a market where people were lining up to take over the distribution of the goods, I heard at least three reports of the dynamics of lines producing confrontations between groups, not necessarily aligned along political lines.
In one case, in a lower middle class neighborhood of Caracas, a line formed at a Bicentenario supermarket at 7 AM. You have to understand that people by now get in line at random, just in the hope that they will get something to eat, trade, barter or sell. In this case, the person I talked to got in just hoping to get something and the National Guard organizing the line gave him a printed paper with the number 100 on it. Just across the street, there was a Farmatodo (Sort of Walgreens, Rite Aide or CVS) where a long line formed even if with less organization or supervision. Except that around 8 AM, the Farmatodo closed its doors. The people in that line all moved across the street to the Supermarket line, overwhelming the people, the guards and simply massively cutting in line. The guy I know, went from being number 100 to about 300 in a minute. He waited in line till 10:20 AM, but had to leave since he had to be at work at 11 AM.
A wasted morning, nothing to show for it.
By the end of my week there, the Government began organizing the so called CLAP’s, (Local Committees for Supply and Production) as the only possible source for regulated products, banning their sale at markets and supermarkets and therefore creating a system that favors those that support or claim to support the Maduro administration, a double standard and discriminating method, which is simply another form of fascism exhibited by the Maduro Government. (The picture at the top if when a CLAP tried to take over a food truck at a supermarket near the Miraflores Palace, by the end of it, people marched to the Palace in protest and the police had to use tear gas. )
And with increased lines and shortages, the conflicts seem to be increasing in intensity and size. What worries me the most, is that at some point, the military will lose control of the situation and there could be an escalation of the conflict beyond the capability of the Government.
And while all of this was happening, Maduro was acting like Nero in burning Rome. Two days he danced and sang on Nationwide TV, another he ranted against the economic war and by the end of the week, he left the country to visit Cuba, where he meekly asked Caribbean and Latin American countries to support his Government.
Meanwhile the opposition concentrated on the recall vote, which is currently paralyzed and frozen in the virtual world of some form of mediation by pro-Chavismo ex-Presidents.
Paralyzed. That seems to the word that best described politics down there. Both sides paralyzed in place, the Government because it can’t find a way of disentangling itself from the economic mess it created and the opposition, because it has a one track plan, which it wants to move forward via international pressure. There seems to be little consensus on the opposition on everything else, with Capriles apparently disagreeing with the only RR strategy and others, like Falcón, starting to organize looking towards the 2019 Presidential election.
Meanwhile, people are puzzled by the weakening black rate, a fleeting phenomenon, as the Dicom rate continues to soar (You can download my friend’s Girish’s App here to have this info on your cell phone or tablet). To me, this is nothing more than noise. While it is true that at Bs. 1,000, M2 is barely US$ 5 billion, it is also true that at the official rate, where the Government imports all of the regulated goods, the number is closer to US$ 500 billion. For the Government to unify the rate and truly lower the black rate, it would have to do too many things it has refused to do, like moving the stuff imported at Bs. 10 per US$ to something like ten or twenty times more, make the black market legal and raise interest rates and have some funds ready to sell in a new open market.
I don’t believe the Government will do all of the above at once. Without all of them, it simply will not work. The only reason the black rate has been moving down is that the excess liquidity in the financial system is mostly in the Government-run banks, which are precisely those that are not lending much (Grab your average Pendejo Sin Fronteras (PSF) who calls for the nationalization of the banking system and explain this simple fact to them…).
And on that technical note, I stop for today, promising at least a post on Puerto Cabello in the next few days…