Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Letter from Venezuala

Seán Edwards

16 December 2014
When I arrived in Caracas it immediately struck me how calm and secure it seemed compared with how I remember it from five years ago, let alone when I first arrived in 2003.
     There are lots of the new national police force on the streets. They speak politely to the people and appear to be trusted. This is new: one of the reasons for the high level of crime in Venezuela was, and is, the incompetence and corruption of all the local and regional police forces. You can add a political reason: some of them were led and administered by the opposition.
     Anyway, the street where I am staying is full of people enjoying themselves until late in the evening; it used to be empty by nine o’clock.
     Another obvious change is all the new housing—beautiful new blocks right in the centre of the city. The established middle-class residents complain about the fall in their property values and about the riff-raff moving in next door having nicer flats. The long-promised housing programme is going ahead at great speed throughout the country.
     President Maduro got a timely propaganda boost from the US Senate, which declared sanctions against Venezuela. This coincided with the fifteenth anniversary of the Bolivarian constitution. A few hundred thousand people marched down to the centre of town from four different starting-points to show their support for the constitution (every Chavista has a copy of the little blue book) and for the president. What he said was excellent.
     There are still terrible problems with the money and with the tricks business people get up to. The economist Manuel Sutherland describes one of their methods as follows. An importer applies to the state for dollars with which to import, say, 100 kg of meat at $100, for which he pays 600 bolivares. He then imports 50 kg for $50 and sells the remaining $50 worth on the black market. He exports some of the meat clandestinely to Colombia, where he will get a much higher price. He will end up with about 6000 bolivares.
     The government has taken some measures to counter these practices, especially to counter the smuggling in the western provinces, adjoining Colombia. Paul Dobson, a young Scotsman who lives in Merida, tells me this has been successful, and now people can find the produce in the supermarket—showing that the shortages were the result of the smuggling and the speculation; the food was being produced.
     Manuel Sutherland proposes a government monopoly on foreign trade to stop this speculation and fraud. He estimates the flight of capital at $100 billion since the election of Hugo Chávez. Chávez. suggested setting up a state import-export agency but didn’t get around to it.

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