Mercedes Flanagan — I’ll call her that — a Venezuelan lawyer, television executive, and jurist, and most important, this author’s first cousin, arrived in Miami on December 15, 2017.
Flanagan. A good Latin American name, like O’Higgins or De Valera.
Mercedes was able to get here after acquiring a six-month US visa (months in the making and a miracle) and flying a convoluted route that included Trinidad and Panama City. Direct flights — or flights of any sort — have become increasingly difficult to book because of Venezuela’s paucity of convertible currency. Five days after her arrival we met at her sister’s house in Boca Raton to celebrate the holidays together. Two of her granddaughters were there, having left Venezuela three months before. They too were seeking political asylum. Mercedes had lost a lot of weight but looked good, a result she attributed to the “Maduro diet,” as Venezuela’s food shortage is nicknamed, after Nicolás Maduro, the current president. She dreads returning.
Please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality.
“Behind the scenes,” she said, “Cubans run everything.” A surprising revelation for what was once one of South America’s richest, most sophisticated, and modern countries — and a dark irony. During the 1960s, Cuban military and guerrilla leaders funded and aided leftist insurgents. Though thoroughly defeated, they’ve made a latter-day comeback.
I asked Mercedes about the state of her finances. She answered that she was still receiving her government pension but that one-third of it had been converted into nonconvertible “economic war bonds,” useless savings certificates.
In 2017, the mismanagement of Venezuela’s socialist economy — please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality (a socialist economy is, by definition, a mismanaged economy; to actually mismanage a socialist economy would be to insert market mechanisms into it) — drove the inflation rate of the Bolivar (Venezuela’s currency) to somewhere above 4,000%. Mercedes reported a black-market exchange rate of 102,000 Bolivares to the dollar, circa December 1. CNN now (mid-January) reports 191,000 Bolivares to the dollar.
In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check.
Let’s take a closer look at this money thing. Each day, Venezuelan banks are given a fixed budget dictating how much cash they’re allowed to disburse to clients. Electronic transactions are allowed, but forget ATMs, they’re all out of cash. Outside the banks, the lines of customers waiting to cash checks in order to acquire cash are already long by opening time — translating to about an hour’s wait. In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check. But here’s the kicker: the daily per client check-cashing allotment set by the government is the equivalent of between 6 and 18 US cents — often not even enough to buy a “tit’s” worth of groceries.
Yes, a “tit” or teta, as it is called, because it resembles a droopy breast. Officially, they are CLAP bags. They hold a month’s worth of groceries and toiletries that cost the equivalent of 18 US cents. The government makes them available to the poorest Venezuelans at heavily subsidized prices. But, as CNN reports, “Recently, CLAP bags have gotten smaller or been delayed as more Venezuelans slip into poverty and as the government runs out of money to import essential goods.” How ironic: a shortage of worthless cash.
Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month, according to Mercedes. One enterprising “Chávista collective” in Caracas representing about 4,000 families has issued its own, parallel currency, the panal, and its own bank, El Banco Panalero, to ease the shortage of cash. The pudgy face of the demagogue former President Hugo Chávez graces one side.
Speaking of iconic faces, renditions of Simón Bolívar’s face have been subtly altered to make him look more creole than European white by pugging his nose and darkening his skin — in other words, to have him resemble Chávez and Maduro.
Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month.
On the plus side, gasoline runs at about 60 cents a gallon — up from 4 cents a gallon not very long ago — a price that has allowed a lucrative smuggling market to thrive at the Colombian border. And Venezuelan day workers — mostly prostitutes — are now allowed into Colombia to earn some real money.
N.B.: Mercedes requested that her true identity not be revealed, writing: “The situation in Venezuela is now much worse with the cold-blooded assassination of the soldier officer for ‘desertion’ for disagreeing with the dictatorship of ‘twenty-first century socialism’ along with three civilians, one of them a pregnant woman . . . and they're not allowing family to see, identify the cadavers, or bury them. We're awaiting Maduro's announcement of the suspension of all civil rights. . . There the raids by armed ‘collectives’ controlled by the government continue with orders to spread panic so that the real, suffering population won't continue to demand their rights to food, medicine, security and free elections."