Donald Trump may be the least popular president ever at this point in his term. But no matter what he screws up, at least we’ll still have bread and toilet paper.
That’s not the case in Venezuela, now four years into the presidency of Nicolás Maduro. The mass protest last week against his government, what’s being called The Mother of All Marches, has left dozens dead with nothing to show for it.
This isn’t a place like Syria, where a dictator wages all-out civil war against his own people to hold onto power. It was once the richest country in South America and was considered a socialist democracy, until now. Poorly run, and very corrupt — but Republicans and Democrats say the same thing here when the other side has power. Hence all Trump’s talk of “draining the swamp,” which strangely still seems to be overflowing.
The problems in Venezuela were mainly economic, at first, just like they are here. And they go to show how important politics can become in our daily lives, and how extreme polarization can be exploited. Fortunately, a Venezuelan expatriate tells me, Trump can never wreak the same havoc here.
“I’ve noticed how he hasn’t been able to get anything passed beyond what the judicial or legislative branch allows him to,” says 31-year-old Cosme Liccardo, who left Venezuela in 2010 and now lives in Miami. “That’s why democracy is so stable in the U.S. — the system of checks and balances is so hard to breach.”
“I don’t believe we’ll ever see a Hugo Chávez or a Nicolás Maduro in power here,” adds Liccardo. “So far, he’s pretty much been another Republican president, which this country is lucky to have as an alternative.”
Crime in Venezuela is mundane
Liccardo, who works as a sound engineer for TV and film, came here for stability and opportunity. He didn’t seek asylum — he got here based on his talents. (That’s a functioning immigration system, by the way, no thanks to Trump.)
“After two renewals of the O-1 Visa and a failed attempt to get a green card, I finally got my permanent residence in July of last year, supported mostly by projects I was involved in with major media outlets in the U.S.,” Liccardo says.
He says he came here because crumbling infrastructure was holding up his work. Even back in 2010, he suffered a two-hour power outage every day. And he was one of the lucky ones.
“I was never mugged or kidnapped like most of my friends, so my main fear wasn’t crime. It was mostly economic factors that led me to flee,” Liccardo says.
Kidnapping? I asked. Most of your friends were kidnapped?
His answer was chilling, so I’ll give you the whole thing…
Yeah it’s crazy, but it’s so common. If you’re middle to upper-middle class, you can get spotted for kidnapping. Normally you get mugged on the street at gunpoint by random thugs — this is just regular crime, not government thug-related. They take your cell phone and whatever money you got on you. I have friends that had to replace their phones three times in a year because of this.
I was just in a conversation with another friend that was telling us about a time he got mugged while leaving a local bakery, gave away his cell phone and money, and the mugger took his food as well. He was like, “Come on, please leave me my sandwiches,” but couldn’t persuade them. It’s funny, sometimes a weird consensus will form between the muggers and the victims: The muggers know they’ll take the phones and money, but they know what a pain in the ass getting an ID is, so they’ll leave you your documents. And the victims will thank them for that. It’s that bizarre.
The kidnapping normally happens as an “express kidnap.” This means that the criminals will take you in your car and either drive you around to banks for you to empty your accounts as much as possible, they’ll probably take you to a secluded location while they call your family members to ask for ransom. Sometimes pretty high, sometimes even in dollars. And if everything goes well, they’ll leave you on the side of the road somewhere that same day or the next day.
If something goes wrong, or they get a bad feeling about the situation, they’ll probably kill you. Sometimes even if they do get the money, they’ll kill you. Sometimes the situation can go on for days, but it’s less likely to go on for months or years like in Colombia with the FARC. It’s basically a way to get easy money. This was starting to happen when I left, but it got so common that, for a time, there was a booming car bullet-proofing industry in Venezuela’s major cities. All my family’s cars are bullet-proofed, and it costs pretty much the same amount as the car, but it’s the only guarantee you can get.
And the economy was a bigger motivator to leave than all that? It’s hard to fathom, until you start hearing the details.
A badly managed economy breeds desperation
“Professional kidnapper” wouldn’t go too far on a resume, but there aren’t a lot of ways to make a living in Venezuela right now. Unemployment will rise above 25 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. It was 7.4 percent in 2015.
For comparison, U.S. unemployment was 5.7 at the start of 2015 and 4.8 at the end of Obama’s term. The highest it’s ever been is 10.8 percent in December 1982, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data going back to 1948.
Even those who have jobs don’t necessarily make ends meet. “In the U.S. even the federal minimum wage [$7.25 an hour] is closer to a living wage than even what’s considered a decent blue-collar wage in Venezuela,” Liccardo says. And that’s because of inflation.
Venezuela has the world’s highest inflation rate — what was worth $1,000 four years ago is now worth about $5, NPR says. That’s ultimately because Venezuela can’t even afford to print money. The country has struggled to manage its currency for a long time.
“After the coup in 2002 and the oil strike of 2002-3, there was so much capital being taken out of the country that Chávez decided to restrict the free exchange of Bolivares into other currencies,” Liccardo says. Eventually it got harder to obtain U.S. dollars, and a black market exchange rate became more than twice as good as going through an official exchange.
Coupled with a drop in oil revenue, Liccardo says the result was, “wages nobody can live off of and skyrocketing prices driven by a gap that is now almost 500 times larger than when the exchange control policy started.”
In the U.S., the Federal Reserve does a good job of managing inflation and unemployment regardless of who is president. While Trump gets to appoint a lot of key people, he can’t dictate and reshape financial policy overnight or even in one term.
And that’s really good news, since Trump can’t seem to decide whether he wants the dollar to be strong or weak and reportedly had to ask one of his Russian-paid advisers how that would affect the economy.
To his credit, Michael Flynn — who is no longer associated with the Trump administration — gave the smart answer: “Ask an economist.”
Losing the “bread war”
Liccardo is from Valencia, an industrial city about two hours west of the capital Caracas, where the main protests are occurring. Valencia was home to the General Motors factory the Venezuelan government just seized, forcing GM to lay off 2,700 workers. Other American companies, including Pepsi, Oreo-maker Mondelez, and Kimberly-Clark — which you’d recognize for its toilet paper, diaper, and tissue brands — have had property seized by the government or moved to avoid it.
As a kid, Liccardo says, the economy was stable and produced plenty. Local food products were ingrained in the culture, and they had their own fast food brands. American products were rare.
“Something like a Snickers bar or a Toblerone was an item you would get as a gift from someone who came back from vacation in the U.S.,” he says. “They were luxury items.”
It was Hugo Chávez, who publicly railed against the evils of American capitalism until his dying breath in 2013, who brought America into Venezuela.
“Five or six years into the Chávez regime, you started to find that Snickers bar everywhere, and McDonald’s or Burger King were popping up in every corner. At one point, I believe we were the country with the most Subway restaurants after the U.S.,” he remembers. “The man that promised to ‘free’ us of ‘U.S. intervention’ brought more U.S. corporations into our economy than ever before in my lifetime. At least that was what I perceived.”
Now imported products are sometimes the only thing available, and at a high price.
“It surprises me that the cost of some basic goods are actually cheaper in the U.S. than in Venezuela, and that’s comparing Bolivares at black market rate against U.S. dollars,” he says. “When my brother came to visit a couple of months ago, he said it was actually cheaper for him to buy that box of spaghetti in our local Walmart, than in his supermarket back home. This would’ve been unimaginable 10 years ago.”
Liccardo and his wife regularly send his in-laws back home “a sort of care package, containing approximately three months worth of groceries.” He says there’s a whole industry in Miami for getting those goods to Venezuelans.
But most people aren’t lucky enough to have friends and family in the U.S. Hunting for food in Venezuela is a full-time job in itself, and a tough one when you’re starving. In an annual health survey, more than two-thirds of Venezuelans reported losing an average of 19 pounds between 2015 and 2016.
Some days people wait in line all day and then go home empty-handed. The socialist government fixes the price of basic goods, but can’t do much about the supply.
“Items like cornmeal, sugar, coffee, bread, pasta and cooking oil are amongst the most coveted and they disappear from shelves easily,” Liccardo says.
President Maduro says bakers are waging a “bread war,” using their very limited supply of flour on brownies and cookies (which are more profitable and help the business survive) instead of bread (which is price-controlled at about 20 cents per loaf and always sold at a loss).
He’s had police seizing bakeries and arresting the owners, which doesn’t do much to help residents. At the bakeries still in business, lines wrap around the buildings before they open. The country is only importing about 25 percent of the wheat it needs because it doesn’t have money to bring in more.
There are ways around the lines, if you have connections or money. “There’s some bartering, when members of the family stand in line for different products and then trade,” Liccardo says. “There’s also some people that have personal contact with supermarket employees that get a heads up about product ETAs.”
And then there is a black market for toilet paper and other necessities. You can buy from bachaqueros, people who stand in line all day, buy everything they can, and then resell it for a profit. It’s sort of like how we have people stand in line to buy our iPhones for us, except more about continuing to exist than having the latest gadget.
The lesson to learn: Don’t tune out
All this isn’t to say, look how good we have it. That’s important to acknowledge, but more important is not settling for the status quo.
While I agree with Liccardo that Trump can’t ruin America — he’ll have at most, four years, compared to the 20-year run of Chávez and Maduro — I do still worry about Trumpism.
Because income inequality is still a huge issue, and I think it’s the issue that got Trump elected. Rural communities worried about jobs and fearing for their financial future overwhelmingly voted for Trump, and the same people are more likely to be worried about immigrants stealing their economic opportunity. (Because they have so little, and so little opportunity to learn better.)
It’s also an issue Trump will likely worsen because he has no clue what he’s doing, but is determined to do it anyway, regardless of what anybody says. If he gets what he wants, we’re likely heading into another recession next year, as we and other experts have argued. He shares some of Maduro’s authoritarian impulses: He values loyalty over expertise. He has no respect for judges or the media, but loves the military. He would love to jail his political opponents.
The top demands for protesters in last week’s march were the release of more than 100 political prisoners and the removal of Maduro- and Chávez-appointed Supreme Court judges. The court recently seized legislative power from the opposition party, then backed off three days later — as if there were an undo button for that. Then the Venezuelan government randomly banned the opposition leader, who nearly beat Maduro for president in 2013, from running for public office until 2032. It claimed “administrative irregularities” from his time as governor.
We have to protest in defense of things that shouldn’t need it, too — women’s rights, and science. But happily, most Americans believe in letting people we don’t agree with run for office. Even if, like Trump, they have neither military or political experience, and no apparent expertise in anything. We also believe in the separation of our government’s power into three federal branches and many state checks on that power, even if only a quarter of us can name those three branches.
And then there are the conspiracy theories. Maduro hasn’t questioned anybody’s citizenship, but he does think the CIA is sabotaging him. He also sent Trump a weird warning in broken English to “open your hair, don’t let them get to you.” (More likely, he said “hear.”) Maduro’s administration indirectly donated $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration, too — money they obviously don’t have.
Liccardo still can’t vote here, but he would have supported Hillary Clinton. “President Obama was such a refreshing experience, since I hadn’t had a decent, well spoken, mild tempered, prudent president in years,” he says. “I was enthusiastic about that ‘Obama third term’ that was supposed to be Secretary Clinton’s administration.”
Both Trump and Bernie Sanders, he says, give him chills.
“I wasn’t comfortable with either Sen. Sanders or Mr. Trump, because both of them seemed to boast a collectivist nationalism that was based on ‘the people’ versus ‘the elites’ and that gave me the Chávez creeps, since it was the same discourse.”
The Venezuelan government is Republicans’ worst nightmare — infinite bureaucracy and no care for deficits. But the issue is not really socialism, but poor planning and leadership. Oil wealth gave the country an enormous opportunity to build infrastructure, diversify its economy, or even just tuck some money away. Instead, it poured everything into expanded social services.
Trump wants to do the same thing with tax cuts and military spending. But, fortunately, we won’t let him.
Article last modified on August 8, 2017. Published by Debt.com, LLC .