This is the personal view of this correspondent on today’s life of Caracas. Translated by Scott
Our Air France flight was grounded in Paris for 5 hours; no one wants to land in Venezuela in the middle of the night, due to the “dangerous criminal situation.” The airliner is half empty, the passengers, judging by nervous conversations, are only Venezuelans. A taxi driver, while leaving the airport, locks the doors, and sweetly warns that after dark, bandits scatter spikes on the roads and rob the stranded cars. “Oh, don’t worry, Amigo, I have an old car. They are not interested in old cars.” That’s where you understand why Caracas is ranked first in the ranking of the most dangerous cities in the world. It’s too late for supper, but I at least want to exchange my US dollars for Venezuelan bolivars. I ask my cab driver. He violently shakes his head: “No, no, no. I do not mess with such things, it’s illegal!” “Whatever,” I laugh at him. “Tomorrow, someone will take the dollars, maybe even with my hands torn off.” I was wrong…
The following morning, no one at the hotel wants to look at my dollars. The hotel employee tells me to go to one of the official “exchange stores” but honestly adds: “only Americans, or complete jerks go there.”
In Venezuela, the official dollar exchange rate is 200 bolivars, and the “black market” exchange rate is 2,715. And if you exchange your currency in a bank, then according to this calculation, a bottle of ordinary water will cost 330 rubles, and a modest lunch in an inexpensive cafe—7,000 rubles per person. Judging by the stories on the Internet, in Venezuelan people should simply kill each other for dollars, but this is not the case. There is also other things different from perception. On western news, it is shown that demonstrators fight with police daily, tens killed, hundreds wounded, the sea of blood. But in Caracas, all is quiet. In an afternoon, people are sitting in cafes and idly sipping rum with ice, while maintenance crews sweep the streets. It turns out that the world ‘s leading TV new sources (including CNN and the BBC) show some fantasy film about Venezuela. “Demonstrations?” yawns Alejandro, a street vendor selling corn. “Well, Saturday there will be one, sort of. On one end of the city will be a rally of opposition supporters, and on the other, Maduro supporters. The police keep them separate to prevent fights.” Amazing. You browse the Internet, you turn on the TV, and you see the revolution, the people dying on streets to overthrow the “evil dictator Maduro.” And you come here, and nobody cares.
Then it got even better. Never in my life have I had so many adventures while trying to exchange one currency for another. The country has a problem with cash money, long queues waiting for the ATM, and even the street dealers of “currency” have no “efectivo,” as they call cash. I wander inside a jewelry store and ask if they want some “green.” The answer is “No.” Everyone acts like law-abiding citizens. I am told that police recently started arresting people for private exchange, that’s why people don’t want to associate. One owner of the jewelry store almost agrees. “What do you have? Dollars? No, I won’t take that.” “Why now?” “I take only the Euros …dollar, man, is the currency of the aggressor, they try to tell us how to live!”
Damn it! I have money in my pocket, and I can’t even buy lunch! Finally, a certain woman, nursing a baby in a workplace, very reluctantly agrees to exchange 2,200 bolivars for a “buck.” I want to curse her out, but I have to live somehow. Bolivars seem like a beautiful, unattainable currency, which hides all the benefits of the world, that’s why they are so hard to get. I’m nodding in agreement. The woman calls somewhere, and asks to wait. After 15 minutes she tells me that “there is a problem.” Of course, money is not to be found. Her man couldn’t withdraw them from the ATM, everywhere the ATMs are on a strict daily rate. “President Maduro is fighting for the strengthening of the national currency,” explained the nursing mother. “We all use our cards to pay for everything.” I don’t know how it works, but yesterday an exchange rate was 3,200 bolívars for 1 dollar, and today the “bucks” fell to 2,700. I have started to realize that in the very next few days I’ll starve to death with dollars in my pocket. A unique fate, perhaps, that has never happen in history.
In the next kiosk cash for gold place I am offered a plastic debit card loaded with local money, and then I would try my luck withdrawing bills from neighboring ATMs. “Or, maybe not, if you’re not lucky.” Well, of course. By the way, an attempt to buy a SIM card for the phone also fails. They don’t sell them to foreigners, you need a Venezuelan ID card. Yes, and I have nothing to pay for it. The feeling is that the dollar is a gift that no one wants. Sadly, I walk by stores. People come out of there with packages of eggs, bread, packs of butter. The range is not like in Moscow, of course, but again, if you believe the news on TV, Venezuela is suffering from a terrible famine, supermarkets are empty, and people are fighting each other for food. Nothing like that. There are queues, but not kilometers long. In general, television stations in the United States and Europe (and ours too) created their own Venezuela, drawn like a terrible cartoon. I walk into a cafe at random. “Will you accept dollars for lunch?” I ask hopelessly. “Yes, at the rate of “black market” they whispered to me. “But the change will also be in dollars…sorry, no bolivars at all…we’ve been hunting for them ourselves for weeks.”
“The gas station,” my driver reaches into his purse and takes out a banknote of 2 Bolivar. The exchange rate of the Venezuelan currency changes every day, and today it is 2 580 bolivars per one dollar. In Russian money, that is 10 cents. “We must now fill a full tank,” says the taxi driver. 60 liters of gasoline cost 1 bolívar, but we give the 2 bolivars bill, because there is no 1 bolivar bill. I can’t believe that is a full tank of fuel costs FIVE CENTS? “And how much can you even fill at this price?” “Once a day for every citizen. And it’s enough for me.” All the way to the center city, the driver scolds President Maduro, and tells me how much he loves America, and how it will be good when the “guy with mustache” is finally overthrow by the Americans. I start to think that I don’t feel sorry for Maduro at all. He really corrupted en entire country with such generous handouts. And they are willingly take, but no one says “thank you,” just that they want more and more.
On the street there is a long line into a “social supermarket,” a place you can buy 400 types of goods at the solid low prices. These shops were established by the late President Hugo Chavez “to fight inflation and protect the poor.” The stores are funded by the Venezuelan government. The buyer comes with a passport, gets a number, and waits in line until they are allowed to enter and buy a certain set of products. The selection isn’t very impressive, only the essentials: chicken, bananas, pineapples, sausages, milk. A box of these food items costs of equivalent of 50 rubles. CNN and the BBC show videos of Venezuelans wrapped in rolls of toilet paper and sadly wandering across the border with Colombia. The toilet paper is found in absolutely every store, and without any problems. I am once again simply amazed: Western TV news is something from Hollywood, they are not reporting but making fantasy blockbusters. On the BBC website I read that hungry Venezuelan children after school go to take a look at the street vendors cooking meat. I’ve been all over the town. Restaurants, cafes, eateries, during the lunch hour are crowded, and people look well-dressed. The mass hunger, the Western media paints for us, doesn’t exist in reality.
I take a few pictures inside the supermarket, and I am immediately approached by the workers or “Maduro followers.” “It’s forbidden to take pictures here.” “Is this a military facility?” “Leave or we’ll call the police.” “Listen, everywhere on TV they tell us that there is hunger in Venezuela. I want to prove that the reality is different.” “We are not interested, we just work here: leave immediately!” I started to understand perfectly well why Nicolas Maduro lost the information war. Hugo Chavez was often praised even in private conversations, but even Chavez supporters find little positive to say about Maduro. When people protested against Hugo’s endless nominations as the head of state, he used to meet them with the open arms, smiling and saying : “Guys, what’s the problem? I’m your President, I love you, let’s sit down and talk!” Maduro doesn’t have this image of being one of the guys. He is not able to communicate with the public, and his assistants, like the employees of the social store, can only push and ban and threaten with the police.
On the streets, provincial farmers sell fruits and vegetables: mango, tomatoes, cucumbers. All about the same price of 25 rubles per kilogram. Here, a dozen eggs from street vendors is 4,800 bolivars or about 130 rubles, and that is not cheap. During the peak of oil prices, when a barrel of oil was sold for $150, Venezuela lived on the principle of a rich fool. To develop domestic production? No, what is that nonsense? We can buy every triviality abroad. Even the managers of the oil production weren’t local, they hired specialists from Europe, and paid them a lot of money. Food imports into the country reached 95 percent. And now the situation is not too different. When I order my meal in a cafe (incidentally, still paying in dollars, all attempts to change dollars to bolivars failed), I get excellent pork. “Where is it from?” “From Colombia.” “And chicken?” “From Brazil, that’s why it’s so expensive.” Even flour for bread comes from neighboring Guyana. Chavez and his successor Maduro wanted to be “people’s presidents,” handing out money left and right. But then oil prices collapsed, food shortages began, and people rebelled. People demand as before: cheap food in supermarkets, gasoline for nothing, and they don’t want to hear anything more or less.
“Chavez was a great guy!” says a fan of the former president, 75-year-old Raul Romero, dressed in a red “chavist” shirt. “Maduro is nothing like him! There is speculators on the streets, he does nothing. In his time, Chavez arrested the dealers raising food prices, closed their shops, confiscated land from landowners, and gave it to the people. We need a firm hand, a real dictatorship!”
In the TV world, Maduro is portrayed as a dictator and executioner, although in Venezuela, he is openly scolded for being meek; they draw cartoon of him, and insult him as much as they can. But who cares about the truth? Much more colorful to show the suffering for the toilet paper.
“I got robbed by a COP for my phone. I’m talking on the cell phone outside, he walks over to me, pokes in my side with his gun. “Give me your mobile.”I don’t understand immediately, and automatically continue the conversation. He cocks his gun, and says, “Kill.” I give him my phone. It’s still good, I love being robbed by cops. They are not bandits from the “Barrios,” the poor neighborhoods in the mountains, who can shoot you first and then rummage your corpse’s pockets. I’m lucky, I’ve lived in Venezuela for 27 years and this was the first time I was “hop-stopped.” A lot of people get robbed every year.
I am talking to Mikhail, a citizen of Russia living in Venezuela since the beginning of the nineties. He helps me move around Caracas and instructs me on how to visit the local slums. “You don’t have protection? Oh, who would doubt that. Then leave your watch, phone, and camera at the hotel. Take some money for a taxi, you also have to have some cash in case you get ambushed, otherwise they might get offended and kill you. Sometimes, people get shot in an arm and a leg, that survivable.” After such a nice story, I still go to the “Barrios.” It is there that the supporters of President Nicolas Maduro mainly live. According to CNN and BBC, impoverished people in Venezuela are revolting against the government. Nothing can be further from the truth; it’s a wealthy middle class that goes to demonstrate. Maduro is applauded in poor neighborhoods, because the President gives their residents free food sets enough for a month and gives free (!) apartments. Formally, they belong to the state, but people live in them for generations.
“I will cut a throat for the President,” a heavily-tattooed man smiles menacingly, and introduces himself as Emilio. “Who else would give me food and a ‘roof ‘ for free? He is our father and benefactor.” Maduro deliberately does not touch such people, which is why crime in Caracas gushes over the edge. I am advised not to stop on the street to look at anything, but just to keep going, otherwise bandits will have time to look closely at me. That’s why they have constant robberies on the streets, plus the police and the national guard can easily take away your favorite things. No one can be happy about all these. “I love Russians,” told me the businessman Carlos while conversing over coffee near the Plaza de Bolivar. “But you’d better send Maduro economic advisers. Teach him a lesson! He doesn’t know anything about economy. He has one recipe for everything, to give more money to the poor, more free apartments, free food, free gasoline, to build a full communism here. But with this, sorry, any state would collapse.”
The opposition rally in the Western part of Caracas is huge, at least 100 thousand people gathered. The protesters are friendly to me, Russia here is respected. It is not considered an enemy. Zero aggression at all… and then I wonder about what I see on CNN, videos of the opposition being rolled into a pancake by tanks. The police keep the neutrality, it disappears from the streets, to not give a cause to provocateurs. People are happily waving flying in the sky military helicopter. Many-in t-shirts with the American flag, a man passes by, holding a hand-written poster with the altered slogan of Donald Trump -“Make Venezuela great again.” “Do you love the U.S.?” “Yes, adore it!” “I remember you already had a pro-American President in 1993, Carlos Andrés Pérez. He sharply raised the price of gasoline, 80% of the goods were imported, he drove the republic into billions of IMF debts. People went to demonstrations, and Pérez drowned them in blood, killing 2,000 people…then he fled to America.”
The man freezes, with his mouth open. Finally, he gets the gift of speech back. “I hope this time the pro-American President will be different.” “Are you sure?” “Sorry, I have nothing to say.” Asking the girl from the opposition how she feels about the US: “The US is our neighbor, let them change the power here.” “In countries where the US changed power like Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands people were killed. Are you ready for this?”
Again, she pauses and sighs. “No, no, no. We are not Africa or Asia. All will go peacefully. Venezuelans will not kill each other.” Where the opinions splits is the question of whether the free gasoline and free food packages will remain with an American-instilled government. Many are sincerely sure that the “freebies” will remain under a new president. How else? The minority that recognizes that state gifts will be canceled say that they at least “we will be free.” As I said, the protesters are mostly well-dressed, well-off people. By the way, the leader of the opposition, Juan Guido, also has no real economic program promising to “quadruple the oil production.” No one thinks that after that price will fall four times. In short, I get a feeling that neither the President, nor the opposition, know anything about the economy in Venezuela.
The demonstrations in support of Maduro take place at the other end of the city, to prevent the opponents from fighting. “You Americans are insolent!” screamed an old woman in a red t-shirt rushing towards me. “Bastards! You should be handed on a first tree! Cheers to socialism!” “I’m Russian, grandma.” The old lady recoils. “Sorry, please.” “Don’t get that upset, senora.” Many people gathered here are joyful, dancing and singing.
A soldiers stands in front of me and doesn’t allow me to take any pictures. Not just me, but also other passers-by. “You can’t take pictures here.” “Says who?” “President Maduro.” No, Maduro is definitely doing everything he can to be disliked. Those gathering here are poor, blue-collared workers and farmers from the suburbs. I am interested , honestly, were you brought here on the busses? “Yes, he did!” says one grandfather, proudly displaying a portrait of Che Guevara. “But I would walk here for Maduro! It’s a lie that we were paid to be here.” Other people applaud him happily. I shake hands. “Russians are welcome! Venezuela loves you, you’re home.”
The day of rallies is over. The maintenance crews came to the sidewalk, strewn with plastic bottles, crumpled packs of cigarettes, and other debris left after by a cloud. At the entrance of an old house, old people drink coffee. “They say that today some general has defected to the side of the opposition,” says one of them. “Some significant person.” “What’s this guy’s name?” “Who knows?” Venezuela is split in half. And the situation there may change at any moment.
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