Freitag, 11. April 2008

money is the root of all evil

from a purely visual point of view, caracas presents itself as a slightly schizophrenic city. on the one hand, banners and murals 'welcome the socialist delegates to insurgent caracas,' urge the people to 'cultivate the seeds of the socio-cultural revolution,' remind us that 'the present (as in 'the now') belongs to all of us' and announce that 'under chavez, the people are the government.' these revolutionary slogans are, however overshadowed by 20 metre tall luminous nescafe cups, equally enormous pepsi signs, ubiquitous multinational beer commercials sporting scantily clad blondes and so on...

in a sense, the simultaneous struggle and co-existence of the two world views exemplified by the slogans could perhaps be seen as a reflection of where things are at in venezuela as a whole. one of the upshots of this struggle for the future of this country has been an economic crisis, with high inflation and an exodus of capital out of the country.

the detractors of the bolivarian revolution claim its due to chavez' propensity to use state funds based on political rather than economic calculations, the chavistas claim its due to the detractors themselves, who, being in the upper and middle class of society control the economy and, being no friends of chavez, have been putting the breaks on economic development themselves by taking their money out of venezuela and placing it in offshore accounts. both possibilities sound plausible enough and are not mutually exclusive.

be that as it may, the way this all has impacted my life is that the government has now moved to curb currency flows in and out of the country and a currency black market has emerged. i don't know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but in any case changing dollars into bolivares is trickier than one might think. as i couldn't find an official exchange office anywhere close by, i decided to try to tap into the black market, which had the added allure of offering me almost twice as many bolivares for my greenbacks than the official rate. and what better way to try and do something shifty than to go and talk to the experts on the issues: taxi drivers. as my luck would have it, though, i stumbled upon an extremely rare kind of human being: an honest, law-abiding taxi driver. so instead of offering to change my dollars at some dodgy rate, he took me to an official exchange place. what's more, he didn't even try to rip me off and even lowered the price from what he had initially said. shocking.

the official procedure for exchanging money was also quite complicated, with my passport getting photocopied, me having to sign a declaration that i was acting according to the provisions of regulation 185/01 of the supervisory agency of banks and other financial institutions of the bolivarian republic of venezuela and had my fingerprint taken before i received my bolivares. in a sense i could have understood the procedure if i was trying to take money out of the economy, but i was bringing money in, and legally at that... but then again i should have learned by now not to try to understand the logic of bureaucratic procedures.

another upshot of the economic crisis seems to be that food prices are high. not necessarily in the absolute sense (depending on whether you exchange money legally or on the black market, its either a bit higher than the central american average or actually quite cheap), but more in the relative sense. for example, a small pizza in a streetside restaurant costs about as much as a night in my hostel, 1,5 trips on the airport shuttle bus, 5 beers, 6 hours on the internet, 12 espressos or 36 rides on the metro. either those pizzas are something really special or something strange is going on.

one possible explanation could of course be that the chavez government might be subsidising the price of public transport, internet, coffee and beer - if that should turn out to be the case, i just might turn chavista myself...

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