“If Maduro was here, this would not be happening”, shouted the woman outside the pharmacy. She was in her mid-60s, thin and very angry. She was one of the lucky ones. She was first in a long queue of people who had heard that a new supply of toilet paper had arrived in the shop, and they were patiently waiting for their turn to buy a limited number of rolls.
It is impossible to gloss over the shortages of basic products in Venezuela today. The queues are there as an angry proof that this is a serious problem for the government. And the drop of oil prices in the international markets is making things ever more difficult for the ‘Presidente Obrero’, the Worker President, as followers of the government like to call Nicolás Maduro, the humble bus driver who became the successor of the late Hugo Chávez.
And yet, for all their anger and all their frustration, while they queued under the blazing sun, those Venezuelans who were waiting to buy the sought-after toilet rolls were not calling for the removal of Maduro. They blame speculators, the shop owners who deliberately withhold basic products and staple foods, like corn flour to make the proverbial arepas, in order to provoke an increase in prices.
Shop owners blame the shortages of basic products on the drop in oil prices on the international market. Today the barrel of crude is selling for a mere $58. Because of the oil price crisis, not enough cash is getting into the country and import companies do not have enough cash to buy their usual product lines. After all, 90% of basic products in Venezuela are imported. But speculation had been going on long before oil prices collapsed, so this sounds like a hollow argument.
The government has started to mount raids on businesses they believe to be fuelling shortages. The owners of two big chains of shops have been arrested. The government argues that some big shops are not only selling their products abroad, thus creating a shortage, but also withdrawing cashiers from their tills in order to create longer queues. In fact, in the shop where the old lady shouted out her frustration, I saw only one cashier in a shop with five tills. And the queue was long.
In spite of the crisis, the government is not ready to give up its social projects. During a speech to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Bolivarian Constitution, held in Caracas’ longest avenue on 15th December, President Nicolás Maduro promised that those projects would continue to receive government support despite the shortage of money. This is the case of the misiones.
Music, dance, sewing machines and cement
“It’s not a subsidy, it is a credit” protested the manager of Parroquia Maracao, a Base de Misiones in the rural outskirts of Caracas, when I suggested to her, playing a not very effective devil’s advocate, that subsidies do not necessarily help to create employment.
Away from the congested and polluted streets of the Venezuelan capital, this Misión runs a factory that manufactures small rucksacks for state-run schools. Instead of ordering the rucksacks from big companies, the state gives monetary credit to some misiones so that they can buy machines and hire workers to make the rucksacks and pay back the government loan.
In Parroquia Maracao, a community formed by several local boroughs, the workers come from the neighbouring communities. They are proud of their achievements. We were welcomed with music and dancing and given a guided tour of the factory. The small clinic has a Cuban doctor (Venezuela makes no secret of the fact that Cuban doctors work in the country), and a Bolivarian militia helps the police to protect the Misión from thieves and other criminals. These are not people living on handouts but a workforce earning a living.
Caracas is also full of empty land. Plots where rubbish and dog mess pile up. Land is expensive in Caracas, especially in the centre of town. Some is owned and used by big companies, who hold onto it because prices of land always go up and they can sell for a good price to developers.
This is the case of Polar, the biggest brewery in the country, which uses some of the land it owns to store empty bottles. The government has expropriated part of it because it considers it to be idle land that could be used for housing projects. This is a city full of people living in rented, cramped and expensive accommodation.
One of these plots of land has been given to a community in the industrial sector of Caracas. With the help of left-wing engineers, they have built blocks of flats. They received credit from the government to build their housing project and pay back the loan with the rent they pay to live there. “I lost my home twice because of the landslides”, one of the community leaders told me, referring to the mudslides in the Caracas countryside caused by rains and floods. “I have a flat now”.
The homes cannot be sold or inherited by people from outside the community. And the government is still fighting in the courts to have the expropriations properly legalised. The community leaders and many of the residents told us that they were not prepared to allow Polar to recover land that, as far as they are concerned, now houses people instead of empties. They even decided not to drink Polar in their communal parties, relying instead on homemade beer. They admit, however, that they have not ye perfected their brewing technique and, reluctantly, have returned to Polar. The homemade beer is not very good. “We’ll get there” they promise.
Minimum wage hikes
At the time of these visits in mid-December I was attending the meeting of the Network of Intellectuals, Artists and Social Movements, which attracted delegates and speakers from all over the world. Of course we were shown the good side of the Bolivarian Revolution. And yet, we were not prevented from seeing the less positive aspects of the process.
One young activist told me, with pride, that the government was about to raise the minimum wage for the second time in a year. I pointed out to him that this could lead to inflation and that, in any case, with the low oil prices, it might prove unaffordable. “What can the government do?” he told me. “Comandante Chávez had accustomed the people to those pay rises and the social projects. President Maduro simply cannot afford to stop that now. ”That is part of the Bolivarian Revolution,” he says, and people expect that.
Venezuela has changed beyond recognition since Hugo Chávez won his first election in 1999. The country increased its dependency on oil for export income from around 78% to 92% during the Chávez era. Many argue that this has had a negative effect in the way the economy operates, because Venezuela does not have a solid industrial infrastructure, imports most of the products it consumes, mainly from Colombia, and, when there is an oil price crisis, it suffers. This time the situation is serious.
Black market blues
Government supporters I spoke to told me that things have to change in the way the economy is managed. The currency black market is thriving and, depending on where you go in Caracas, you can find up to six exchange rates. Everybody is at it: bellboys, airport attendants, taxi drivers, restaurant waiters. The difference between the official exchange rate and what you can obtain in the black market is so huge that few people, including tourists, bother to go to a bank or a travel exchange office to get the official rate. You don’t have to look for a black market seller. They come to you. They are everywhere. And none of the volunteers who looked after us even tried to stop those who tried to sell us Bolívares.
I suggested to my hosts that maybe the best way to fight this is to legalise the black market, as happened in Peru, where street money sellers have been granted licences to operate. After all, the black market exchange rate is real, it is a reluctant part of the economy. The government tried to do that some years ago, I am told, but it didn’t work. Once one black market closes, another one is born. The limits on the amount of dollars you can take out of the country, imposed by the Chávez government – currently $3,000 for travellers and $10,000 for businesses – also make it difficult for companies to invest in Venezuela and export their gains.
The limitations enforced by the government to prevent capital flight have become a double-edge sword. And, in any case, many people have found ways to get more than the allocated amount. Some, especially the most prosperous middle-class, who want so badly to get rid of President Maduro by any means possible, buy flights whose tickets they use to get the $3,000 quota. They never travel though. They keep the money until the rates have gone up. Then, they buy Bolívares, the local currency. The money they earn usually more than covers the money they spent in the never-used flight tickets. With two or three “flights” a month, they make good money. It is a parasitical economy that only vociferous opponents to the government practice. And when they fly to Miami, they do not do it to expose the terrible government they live under, but to buy cheaper gadgets that they sell on their return to Venezuela for a lower price than in one of the huge shopping malls that proliferate in the big cities.
The opposition does not blame the government for the slump in the oil prices but it blames it for its consequences. They seem to forget that, any government, no matter its ideology, would suffer with a significant drop in oil prices. But the oil crisis has become the latest weapon in a campaign to undermine the government. What they could not achieve by demonstrating in the streets, they hope will be achieved for them by Saudi Arabia.
In an interview for Telesur, Brian Becker, chairman of the US-based ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism Coalition), is adamant that the current slump in the oil prices is partly political, an unholy, informal alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Saudi regime has refused to reduce production in order to improve oil prices.
In the past few months, Becker informs us, Saudi Arabia has been selling cheap oil to the US. The current crisis helps to kill a few birds with one stone. The low oil prices are affecting Iran, Russia and, of course, Venezuela. Riyadh has its own religious and political reasons for wishing to harm Iran, and the US wants to punish Russia for the war in Ukraine and has constantly attacked Venezuela for its human rights record.
The US has recently extended the list of visa bans against Venezuelan government officials. It is no a secret that Washington wants regime change in Caracas. Becker’s analysis may sound like a conspiracy theory, but it is difficult to argue with facts.
And Becker clearly states facts. He argues that the current ‘oil war’ is easier to sell to the American public than a war with troops and missiles. People are reluctant to see their ‘boys’ invading a country, but do not notice when oil prices strangle the economy of the ‘enemy’. And if the consumer in the United States benefits with that bargain, even better.
It is difficult to know where the money for social projects will come from in future. Oil prices will recover at some point but it may take years for that to happen. And Venezuela needs the money now.
The opposition, which has so far failed to establish a credible alternative to Chavismo’, also hopes that the economic crisis will provoke the fall of the government via a breakdown of the ruling Venezuelan Unified Socialist Party, the PSUV. But even the anti-Chavista international media admits that those cracks have not materialised.
Some in the PSUV have criticised Maduro’s economic policies, but nobody has called for a replacement of the president as leader of the country. It was always going to be difficult for Maduro to fill the boots of Hugo Chávez. He has tried to create his own identity as a leader but the shadow of his predecessor will always loom large. And that would be the case for any political leader in Venezuela.
During the celebrations for the 15th anniversary of the Bolivarian Constitution, the streets near the main stage where Maduro and his government address the people were not full. “El comandante would have filled them, Maduro still has some way to go”, a demonstrator told me while I was trying to get closer to the main stage. It was, in fairness, a minor event, compared to other more emblematic celebrations, and it was a Monday after all, not a bank holiday. And Nicolás Maduro is not Hugo Chávez. And yet there were enough people in Central Caracas to justify the closure of those roads.
The next few months are going to be crucial for the survival of the Bolivarian process. And there are elections for the National Assembly (parliament) at the end of the year. People inside and outside Venezuela, friend and foe, will watch the way Maduro handles the current crisis and the capacity of the government to overcome it and maintain the support that, so far, has kept ‘Chavismo’ in power. In any case, judging by what I was able to see in the streets of Caracas, away from the conference, news of the Bolivarian process demise are, indeed, greatly exaggerated.
Photos: all photos by Javier Farje