Generally I like to have a bowl of cereal for breakfast and there is no shortage of attractively priced and packaged cereals here in Caracas, Venezuela. Indeed, just last week I bought three different types from the scores available. A box of Granola, a box of Muesli with No Added Sugar and Forty Percent Fruit, plus a box of Bran Flakes with Apricot Bits. All as it should be.
The problem was finding milk.
We scanned the refrigerated shelves. Juice of all kinds, drinking yoghurt in a abundance, an embarrassment of soft drinks. Not a single carton of semi-skimmed.
“Any milk?” Andrea, who's gamely shepherding me around Caracas, asks.
“You´ll have to get it somewhere else,” they tell us.
Easier said then done. Especially for someone in my position who doesn't know precisely where to go and can't zoom between supermarkets tracking it down. But it seems it's not only my ignorance of the highways and byways of Caracas that's at stake. The next day I go for a coffee with my teacher Mallington ( a gentlemen of a certain age, originally from Trinidad and about whom much more later) in Sambil, one of east Caracas' larger shopping centres, slap bang in the middle of the determinedly anti-Chavez Chacoa. It's Chacao's shopping centres that invariably feature in any documentary on Venezuela that wants to highlight the contrasts in wealth. First a shot of a Barrio, then a shot of Sambil. Mallington orders a thimbleful of the heavily caffinated tar the locals thrive on, I go for the more gringo–friendly café con leche.
“There is no milk,” they tell us.
“See?” Mallington asks me, eyebrows raised.
And if they can’t get milk in a café in Sambil, what chance do I have?
As it happens I find one the next day in the supermarket directly below the building I'm staying in, the imposing, twenty-five floor ( Í am on floor twenty four) Torre Este. It's one o'clock or so and there are two left. Foolishly I buy just one. That's long gone and despite having returned several times I haven't seen any since.
As Andrea whizzes me around town I always have milk on my mind and every time we stop I try to hunt some down, All-night Chemists, Twenty Four Hour Garages, Mini Supermarkets. There isn’t any. I’ve ended up eating my cereal either dry or with water.
Locals will no doubt be stunned at my ineptitude (and the implication that Caracas' gridlocked traffic allows you to whizz anywhere), but it seems that there is a scarcity. The argument goes that the government is over-dependant on imports and has failed to support or increase local production. With China and India shifting toward a more western style diet with lots of meat and dairy (and consequently more exciting Western lifestyle choices like bowel cancer) the world milk supply is getting pretty substantially mopped up. Not enough milk in circulation and few domestic reserves to fall back on. The shortages aren't just in milk. Rice, chicken, eggs, flour, beans. The staple foodstuffs are also, seemingly, in short supply, as are citrus fruits, which, for a tropical country, is really something.
The shortages in the supermarkets can be put down to market pressures, a global phenomena, increased demand and the effects of climate change creating scarcity. Even the bread and milk in my local Tescos back in rainswept First World Greenwich have shot up recently. Tough luck for the pampered rich, who’ll just have to suffer a little privation for once. Except that those most likely to be directly affected are the poor. Certainly they have the government's subsidized shops but supply here, it seems, can be as erratic as anywhere, if not more so. Some 70 per cent of the poorest inhabitants, it’s claimed, had difficulty buying milk and eggs last year. It’s not just market pressures, but the inevitable quick-buck corruption. Heavily subsidised food gets ripped off and shipped across the border to Colombia to be sold at a profit.
Subsidised food and subsidised petrol. Filling the tank of your Hummer round here will cost a staggering three dollars, about one pound fifty. Despite Chavez's article in the Guardian a few years ago condemning the hegemony of the car, the insanely cheap price of petrol is meant as a gift to the nation, meaning that everyone can participate in the country's oil wealth. Everyone can afford to run a car, if they can afford to own one. Andrea's dad, as he’s driving us out to stay in his six-berth Yacht in Puerto La Cruz practically cackles as he gets back in the car after filling the tank. "Petrol's never been cheaper than it is under this government," he says as we power past the shacks that line the road and the groups of kids walking or cycling from one roadside barrio to another.
Later we polish off a bottle of Buchanans', the oligarchs tipple of choice and much favoured by Chavez and his associates too (along with those sexy Hummers). It used to be the traditional, indigenous Rum that got drunk at parties but these days, in our globalized, free-market world, the prestigious drink is expensive imported whisky. Something which seems to have really increased in popularity under the present government, they tell me. For some reason which my Spanish is too inadequate to grasp, the government is thinking of levying duties in order to make it even more expensive, adding, one can only assume, to it's prestige and making sure that only the super-rich can get their hands on it, meanwhile a significant black market in Colombia is already gearing itself up to ship it across the border. Government subsidized food and petrol goes one way, from Socialist Venezuela, free market whiskey, guns and other "recreational items" from Yankee lapdog Colombia come the other way. Two ostensibly opposed political and social systems, united only by those two timeless, seemingly ineradicable aspects of life, corruption and crime.
Not entirely surprising. Venezuela was recently garlanded with the accolade of "second most corrupt country in South America" (Haiti was first), no mean feat given the stiffness of the competition, I would think. Today the free newspaper they give out on the subway informed me that Caracas was assessed by some Imperialist Lackey Business Organization as being the worst city to live in in South America. External investment is negligible, as is inward, gun crime is soaring, the infrastructure crumbling. Inflation is the highest in South America and with the proposed cut to the working day from eight to six hours, it looks to get worse, although given the somewhat confused premise of the proposal, that the working week remain thirty six hours and that therefore people would in fact be obliged to work Saturdays too, the Government is now trying to spin the proposal, the sweetener in the up-and-coming constitutional reforms, some other way. Plenty of economists are predicting a devaluation, though the government is, for some reason no-one seems very clear about, changing the currency from the Bolivar to the Strong Bolivar, something achieved simply by knocking a few zeros off the end of the price, though how this might strengthen it, no-one seems to know. The populace doesn’t seem convinced and, restricted in the quantity of dollars that they can own, are busy either buying into the thriving currency black market ahead of a devaluation (like Andrea’s mum) or trying to sink their money into consumer goods, hence cars and high-tech goods importers (like Andrea's dad) are thriving. The Strong Bolivar, like the up-and-coming change to the time, the proposed setting back of the clock by half an hour so that Venezuelans will receive and extra half hour of sun a day and enjoy all the attendant feelings of well-being and enthusiasm for work that they might otherwise lack, is perhaps more a question of influencing public morale than any really significant measure ( though after reading a three page encomium on the difference this would make to the national life in a pro-Chavez paper, MY morale was considerably dampened). Any directly practical measures they are taking seem to be cutting taxes, thereby increasing the individual's spending power. A strange measure for a socialist government, you might think.
But in fact a visit to the mythical centre of Caracas (everybody warns you against going there) might well persuade you that Bolivarian Socialism doesn't look much different to anywhere else's free marketeering. There's nothing in the frantic rat-run of market stalls and makeshift shops that line the sidewalks and colonize the squares in the administrative heart of the country that Thomas Friedman wouldn't take pride in. Those of you who have had the misfortune to read "The Lexus and the Olive tree" will recall Freidman's sugary epiphany when, on the day after Thailand's financial crash, he encountered a grandmother selling matches on the street. This was like Hegel seeing Napoleon pass through Jena. Here was the incarnation of the world spirit, the spirit of entrepreneurship, the old woman also tirelessly hunting down her piece of the American dream. The Universal Dream.
The centre is the home of all that is Chavista, and there's certainly plenty of local colour. Up out of the Subway we immediately cross the road to avoid what looks like a pretty heavy confrontation developing between street vendors, go down a side street and find another, a young guy being pinned to the floor with a gun to his head while representatives of one of the bafflingly large variety of local police chase his friend. Street after street is lined with buhoneros, street vendors, the recently legalized mainstay of Caracas' informal economy, which accounts for approximately forty five percent of the population and whose recent legalization has, arguably, helped to bring the country's unemployment statistics down. On a corner next to an official building and amid the melee, the most recent of the Misiones, Mision Che Guevera is in effect, handing out water to people and offering super-cheap, possibly second hand, possibly Cuban clothes while on the other corner a debate on the proposed constitutional reform is taking place, the small audience peopled largely by a group of disconsolate looking schoolkids. We pass on through more and more market stalls. It’s all rather exciting and colourful for me, as a tourist, carnivalesque. Rather like going to Downing Street and finding they've moved Deptford market there.
Where does all this stuff that's being sold come from, I want to know. Much of it's smuggled in or stolen of course, most of it comes from local enterprises who give the goods to the street vendors at a concessionary rate and then cream off the profits. There are plenty of local police and military types lounging on motorbikes. So what jobs has the government directly created, I ask Mallington. The military, he tells me and the Misiones.
The Misiones. I'm supposed to be going up to one of them to have a look round under the auspices of Patricia, one of the people I've been staying with here and who works with single mothers living in more-or-less absolute poverty. It’s not unusual to have four generations of women pregnant simultaneously apparently, and no fathers around anywhere. Unfortunately it doesn't come off, but I have had time to talk to Patricia about her work.
Does she feel it's having a real effect on people’s lives?
It’s difficult to get people to change their way of thinking and living, she tells me, but yes, she believes it is having an effect and we agree that creating any substantial change would inevitably be a long process.
And what do people think about the government, I ask, as we look out of the twenty fourth floor at the almost inconceivable quantity of slums clustered onto the slopes of the bottle-green mountains that ring Caracas. The euphoria, she says, is starting to wear off.
The euphoria wore off on Mallington quite some time ago. He could tell you some stories, and should you come here he almost certainly will. He could tell you for instance that when his brother passed away in a public hospital recently, the nurse attending to him had neither gloves nor a face mask (Andrea backs this up. The doctors provide the expertise, the patients family provides everything else). And he could point you to an advertisement in one of the national newspapers in which the Directors of the public hospital system are publicly appealing for more Government support. Or, for instance, he could tell you about the newly recruited Private in the Venezuelan army who rents a flat in his building at a cost of three million Bolivares a month ( a small fortune here) hardly ever uses it, and runs three cars.
I tend to trust much of what Mallington tells me. He isn't simply Anti-Chavez, indeed he voted for him in the first election and believes that the platform he stood on then was what the country needed. And still needs. Equally, while he protested against the government in 2002 he was opposed to the cabal of businessmen who took power in the coup and proceeded to rip up the fabric of the country's legal and political system. Just another bunch of dictators. Neither Petroleum Populism nor Neo-Liberalism. Neither Washington nor Caracas...
I ask him how he would sum up his feelings toward the Chavez government now and he teaches me a nice new phrase in Spanish.
“No se le ve el queso a la tostada.”
The cheese is not seen on the bread. The government hasn't delivered
I wonder if there's any expression using milk?