How difficult is it to live in Venezuela

Everyday life in Venezuela: With 600 bolívar in Caracas

Millions of Venezuelans are hungry - including our author. What is it like to live on the minimum wage in the Venezuelan capital? A test.

Looking for something to eat: In Venezuela, people mockingly speak of the “Maduro diet” Photo: Carlos Jasso / Reuters

CARACAStaz | Maduro or Guaidó? Who is right? Who's to blame for all of this? Imperialism, socialism? Is it the fault of the US that frozen Venezuela's accounts, that of the welfare system, that of a government that throws money out of the window and then goes broke? What was Chavez? What was this revolution really like? After three days I only know one thing: I'm hungry.

I'm just hungry.

Venezuela has a population of 32 million. According to the United Nations, 4.4 million of them suffer from a lack of water, 3.7 million have too little to eat, and 2.8 million lack the necessary medication.

And 3.4 million have already left.

On average, people lose 12 kilos a year in Venezuela. What is mocked as the “Maduro diet” shows in the gloomy eyes of my roommates in the Misión Vivienda on Avenida Libertador, one of the main streets of Caracas. This is where I live, I want to know how it is in one of the social housing complexes that Chavez had planned for the needy. That was 2.9 million people at the time. It's a twelve-story building, with eight apartments on each floor. And it's something like a community.

I live with Mariela Herrera, 48, a nurse, and her son. All together we own a kilo of rice, half a kilo of flour, three carrots and a slice of cheese. But when I pull out my supply of biscuits, the unemployed neighbor suggests we go up to the sixth floor and share it with Eliana Beitze, a 49-year-old porter who suffers from sclerosis and lies exhausted on a thin mattress on the floor. She has to choose between medication or dinner. And between medication for her or for her daughter. She is 17 and a diabetic with blotchy, purple skin. They offer me rainwater.

But I would drink anything. I'm thirsty now, just thirsty. I haven't had a drink in eleven hours.

Origami from banknotes

I live here and I have decided, like everyone else, to live on 600 bolívar a day, the minimum wage. I don't really know how much that is. One dollar is roughly 3,000 bolívar, but there is inflation in the seven-digit percentage range and the bolívar is really just printed paper. Literally. The notes are used for origami. Nobody knows what anything costs anymore.

The trigger

In the parliamentary elections at the end of 2015, the opposition alliance Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) won a majority in the National Assembly. Head of state Nicolás Maduro then set up a constituent assembly loyal to him, which in 2017 overturned parliament. 125 people were killed in the protests that followed. The parliament describes the constituent assembly as illegitimate and does not recognize the re-election of Maduro as president.

The question of power

On January 23 of this year, opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president. Guaidó is now recognized as transitional president by more than 50 countries, including Germany, the USA and most of the Latin American countries. The decisive factor for the question of power, however, are the Venezuelan military, whom Guaidó seeks to find on his side with a promise of amnesty. So far without any notable success. (taz)

Because it depends on whether you pay with Bolívar or dollars. And in a normal store or a state one. Or on the black market. And whether you pay cash or by mobile phone or with a credit card. However, there is no longer any cash because there is not enough money to print money. So I borrow a credit card. Be careful with this, I am warned - not because of the money on the card, but because of the card itself: there is no more plastic. It's worth more than all of your savings.

It has been years since everyone here knew what everything costs. Venezuela only produces oil. And with the oil it imports everything it needs: seven out of ten products. So it depends on the dollar. In 2003, Chavez introduced a fixed exchange rate. Or more precisely: several fixed exchange rates. Three. One for public companies. One for private corporations and citizens, for exchanges of up to $ 3,000. And one for everything else.

In 2015, the financial analyst Raúl Gallegos stayed at the Renaissance Hotel to research his book “Crude Nation”. The room cost him 9,469 bolívar a night. So $ 1,503, or $ 789, or $ 190 - or even $ 53, at the black market rate. Depending on the exchange rate that was legal or accessible to someone through bribes, Venezuela was the country where you only pay $ 1.50 for a BigMac or 17,333 for an Iphone6.

So what did Chavez's Venezuela really look like?

The truth is that Venezuela depends not only on oil, but also on those US that dislike it and who are the main buyers. The only ones who have refineries for Venezuela's heavy crude oil. When oil prices fell 70 percent in 2015, US President Barack Obama declared Venezuela a security risk. Sanctions then came into effect under Trump: Trump banned all financial transactions with Venezuela and prevented Venezuela's access to the profits of Citgo, the US fuel chain owned by Venezuela.

Of course, these measures meet with criticism from the UN: international law forbids any attempt to overthrow a foreign government by force, be it by military means or by other means. Instead of weakening the government, however, it emerged stronger. This is not a crisis, says Maduro: this is an economic war.

Armed men defend the revolution

During demonstrations against Maduro you only hear three words: luz, agua, comida - electricity, water, food. With those for Maduro only one thing: sabotaje - sabotage. Both sides use only one word: usurpation.

We are on Avenida Fuerzas Armados. Two men in a red T-shirt storm a protest against Maduro. You belong to the colectivos, armed supporters of the government. Your logo is everywhere in Caracas, on all the walls: A man with a gun, and underneath the words: “In defense of the revolution”. They are local groups. Neighborhood groups, theoretically founded for social work. But nobody knows who they really are, and above all: who determines them.

That is also why the opposition is so severe. With the power failure, which makes everything even more complicated. Today is the day of the demonstration, Guaidó has called for a mobilization, and I walk through Caracas with a few activists: But we can't find anything. Our cell phones have not been working since yesterday, and neither is the internet. We have no idea where the demo is supposed to be.

Finally we find her in front of the Chacao subway station. It consists of just 16 people. You have two pans with you, a paint bucket, a tin jam jar, a few rattles, and homemade drums with spoons as drumsticks. You're 16 when you start and 16 when you leave. Nobody joins. However, when the traffic lights turn red, the drivers honk to the rhythm of the drums. Support. Buses pass by, full buses, and those hanging outside curse Maduro and show their thumbs up.

"Not used to work"

“It's not just about politics. Above all, it's a question of culture, ”says Katy Camargo, 42, the best-known activist in Petare, the poorest slum in Caracas. “As in all oil countries, we are used to getting everything from the state. When the health system broke down, we switched to private clinics. When education went down the drain, we switched to private schools. We have adapted. Always, because in the end we had oil. We're not used to working for change, getting involved, ”she says. At best, honk the horn.

“The opposition is expected to bring about change here,” she says. “And the opposition expects Guaidó to change everyone's life. But just as the problem is not just Maduro, the solution is not Guaidó either. "

During Chavez's years in power from 1999 to 2013, oil prices jumped from $ 16 to $ 10 a barrel. Venezuela took in more than $ 100 billion a year. And poverty, which affected 44 percent of households, was cut in half. Those who support the government today are ultimately not behind Maduro - they are behind Chavez.

Like José Cordero: "Guaidó is just a puppet from the United States," he says. “If you want to help us, why don't you lift the sanctions? We don't need solidarity, we don't need charity. We just need to get back what is ours, ”he says. And Ruben Marquez, who carries a book by Marx with him, agrees. “Of course it's an economic war,” he says. “But it's not a question of socialism or capitalism: above all, it's a question of sovereignty. We determine our decisions and our country. "

Half of the population is poor

When Chavez died, 48.5 percent of households were again living below the poverty line. And the oil was still at $ 98 a barrel.

All of Caracas is on its feet, in long rows on the roadsides, heads bowed. Canisters and bottles on his shoulders. And when the power fails again, everything turns black, leaden and silent. But only for a moment. Then it starts. It starts with a tinny noise, a tangible sound, it sounds like a ladle, like a spoon that is hit on metal, and then another and another and suddenly all of them hit the railings, buckets, cans, pans, whatever they can reach, and the voice of the barrio rings out loudly against Maduro. Hunger! Hunger! Hunger! Even if the Miraflores Presidential Palace is far away.

The next morning we all go looking for water. The pumps will not run without electricity. And water is not included in the Carnet de la Patria, the fatherland card with which you get a box with rice, flour, pasta and a little tuna from the government every month. We are all looking for pipes where something can still come out, for streams, puddles, breaks in sewer pipes, something.

Guaidó and Maduro are calling for demonstrations again. But we are thirsty. We're just thirsty.

Two camps, two opinions

In the past five years, Venezuela's per capita income has fallen by 40 percent. If you follow Guaidó's analysts, the reason is very clear: Socialism is to blame. Chavez was an illusion, they say. What we had was not development, but increased consumption, paid for in oil. And with that, Chavez ruined the economy. With its subsidies, social programs and nationalizations, it has destroyed industry, including the oil industry, they say.

Maduro's consultants see it very differently. For them this is all the fault of imperialism. With Chavez we had economic growth, they say, not just consumption growth. Unemployment was at an all-time low and oil production was high. And so on. Official statistics have not been published for a long time. The last ones are from 2014. Everyone puts together their own numbers. Everyone says, sorry, but that doesn't make sense.

And somehow that's even true. After all, how many are my 600 bolívar? And so everyone says what they want, for or against Chavez. The bizarre thing is: it was the same before Chavez. That's how he came to power in the first place.

In the late 1980s, oil prices fell, and President Campíns refused to cut government spending. The debts grew, Campíns devalued the Bolívar. In the end, the government turned to the International Monetary Fund, cut subsidies, cut social programs - and sparked a social uprising. It lasted nine days and more than 300 people died.

That was the crisis that ultimately brought Chavez to power.

The fixed exchange rate system cost $ 254.7 billion during his presidency. But the real cost was much higher. Business people could buy dollars for 6.50 bolivars and sell them on the black market for 180 bolivars instead of using them for their businesses. A gain of 2,800 percent. And what's more, you could repeat the trick indefinitely. Even for ordinary citizens, speculation was far more profitable than work. And if consumption increases without there being a corresponding growth in production, then inflation also increases, along with the flight of capital, which should just be stopped.

The power of the colectivos

Ultimately, as the author and chronicler Willy McKey puts it: Venezuela was never about good or bad governments, it was always about low or high oil prices. McKey comes from the 23 de Enero district, one of the most famous districts of Caracas, a stronghold of the Colectivos. It looks like Baghdad. You stay at home there and you close the windows. You live in fear.

In 2002, after an attempted coup, Chavez realized he needed his own armed forces. He assigned one of his confidants, Freddy Bernal, with the task of arming the Bolivarian Circle. They were like the local sections of a communist party. They are around 4,000 strong and have been financed by the state since 2006. You are entrusted with maintaining law and order. Or, as they say here: you are the ruler of food. Because they, it is said, filter the imports: What is issued on the Carnet de la Patria, what goes into normal shops, and what ends up directly on the black market.

In 2016, Freddy Bernal was named head of the national food supply. Imran Beheeus is 52 and he owns a bakery on the corner of my Misión Vivienda. Actually, it says on paper, flour should be delivered directly to his door. But most of the time he has to go to pick it up. To the 23 de Enero district. And yet he is firmly committed to Chavez. The problem is not the system, he says, the problem is the implementation.

“Chavez has organized the production of a whole range of goods, basic products, so that we all have the essentials to live. Not all the same wealth, but the same dignity. Only: It was like an assembly line that was too long: there were too many opportunities for illegal activity along the way. But it's still a real idea, ”he says. Not a single customer comes to his bakery within an hour. “Today everyone is talking about Chavez,” continues Beheeus. “Okay, the state doesn't work today. But if you didn't have electricity before, you couldn't complain because the government never connected you to the grid. You were never part of any urban development plan. Because before Chavez, this was the land of the well-heeled. Only the well-heeled white ones, ”he says.

Barbed wire instead of social mixing

“But now we have rights. And the state has duties. And whoever says that the poverty rate is the same today has no idea what poverty is. Because today we are poor in one house - yesterday we were poor on the street. "

In fact, when I walk in one of the rich neighborhoods of Caracas and I say that I live in a Misión Vivienda, I am seen as if I have gone crazy. The people there have never entered a Misión Vivienda. When I ask them what Venezuela was like before Chavez, they say, “Wonderful.” Even if they live in barbed wire-reinforced buildings with electric fences. In the Caracas of the Poor, they say about this neighborhood: I don't know, I've never been there.

7,873 new health centers were built under Chavez. 17 million Venezuelans no longer had access to medical care. No longer 387,000, but two million people received a pension. Are these real numbers? Fake numbers? Maybe it doesn't matter in the end. Because if you ask Chavists what Chavez meant to them, nobody talks about apartments, schools, hospitals, material advantages.

“When we moved here, the residents of the surrounding houses were against it,” says Jolanda Noriega, 41, from the third floor, as we share our dinner, an apple. “They said that our house would cause their properties to drop in value. They were hostile, and in fact they still are. "

“But that was Chavez: not just a house, but a house in downtown Caracas. Because even if you are poor: you count. You count as much as everyone else. "

“I was invisible,” she says. "Now I exist."

The power fails again. And again everything goes black.