Sunday, May 29, 2016

Venezuela going to the dogs

Having lived for a few years in Venezuela (those who are curious can read Luke's South American Diary), it pains me to see a country so full of natural beauty going down the toilet quite so precipitately and comprehensively.
We lived there in the relatively good pre-Chavez revolution days. But, even then, the country was something of a basket-case, and you could easily see it tipping over to something worse. Bribery and corruption were endemic and an unavoidable part of the everyday fabric of life; crime was also a way of life, although usually limited to petty theft and pick-pocketing, and not usually armed; the wealthy and even the middle classes seemed thoroughly spoiled by the petroleum revenues that underpinned the whole economy, making the people (unlike the people of most of the rest of South America) arrogant and unpleasant; gas pump prices were a few cents a litre, below cost prices even back then, but people took this as their birthright and even the suggestion of moderate price increases would lead to protests and riots; anyone with any money at all kept it offshore, mainly in the USA, and the black market was a perfectly normal and accepted phenomenon; inflation was rampant, and the currency only supported by stringent exchange controls.
Sound familiar? Well, things are even worse now. According to an infographic in today's Globe and Mail (unfortunately not available online), the black market exchange rate, the one that has at least some reality on the streets of Caracas, has tanked from around 150 bolivares to the dollar to over 1,000 (it reached about 1,300 at one point earlier this year). Inflation has increased from around 41% in 2013 and 63% in 2014 to a massive 275% last year. It is predicted to hit an almost unimaginable 720% this year, and the central bank is struggling to print enough banknotes to keep up with demand. The so-called "misery index" in Venezuela, a metric combining inflation and unemployment statistics, is almost an order of magnitude greater than countries like Argentina, South Africa, Greece and Ukraine, all of which have substantial problems of their own. The BBC reports that the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence group recorded 24,980 violent deaths in 2014 (the equivalent of 82 murders per 100,000 inhabitant), a level more usually associated with a country at war.
And, throughout it all, as always, it is the downtrodden poor, those without a cushion of US dollars hidden away, who are suffering the most.

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