Not a banana republic, but an avocado economy


CARACAS, Venezuela — Since the end of the Bretton Woods system, or at least since the end of the ‘currency snake’ in Europe that preceded formal monetary union, it’s become difficult not to think about currency in terms other than a floating price determined on the free market.Venezuela Flag Icon

Sure, China still sets its own currency, and the renminbi may well be undervalued, but that matters less to China because its whole macroeconomic game is exporting. Manufacturers from a factory in Guangdong province assemble their goods, sell them to the United States, and promptly turn over their dollars to the Chinese government, which then exchanges them for renminbi. That’s how China ended up with such a glut of dollars in the early 2000s, and that’s why relatively fewer exports could mean fewer dollars, which could be one of the few market pressures to cause U.S. bond yields to rise after five years of historically low borrowing costs for the U.S. government.

Of crude oil and curses

But in Venezuela, there’s one major export — oil — and that revenue is in the hands of the government. In one sense, economics in Venezuela or in any other petrostate is pretty facile: when the oil price goes up, the country has a boom; when the oil price goes down, the country goes bust. That’s why the oil crisis 1970s and early 1980s were such a great time for Venezuela but such a bad time for the United States, why the cheap-oil era of the 1990s was so bad for Venezuela and, conversely great for the United States. It’s why Hugo Chávez was riding so high in the early 2000s, and why the brief drop in oil prices with the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 was bad for Venezuela as well as everyone else.

Unlike China, which had a $231 billion trade surplus in 2012, however, Venezuela’s trade surplus masks its growing dependence on imports, and so the key market for dollars is among those who import those goods (and for Venezuelans who want to take business trips — or shopping trips — to Miami).

For lots of reasons,there are disincentives for homegrown production in Venezuela. Many of those reasons have to do with the behavioral economics aspects of the ‘resources curse’ and the petrostate, but they also include the uncertain business climate under the last 14 years. Why start a farm in 2003 when the Chávez government might decide to expropriate it on live television in 2008?  So the country is increasingly importing even those products, such as fresh produce, that it could arguably grow for itself more efficiently. It’s even started importing refined oil products rather than develop the capital to clean the ultra heavy crude that comes out of the ground in Venezuela. A similar dynamic exists in Puerto Rico, where the U.S. government intervened in the 1950s with subsidies for industry during ‘Operation Bootstrap,’ thereby decimating the boricua agricultural sector to this day — produce in tropical San Juan is imported from Florida, Texas and California.

Of dollars and devaluations

Today, the official rate of the Venezuelan currency, the bolívar, is 6.3 per U.S. dollar.

But no one actually pays that, especially these days.

There’s a black market rate, rumored to be up to four times the official rates, a tourist rate that’s discounted a little from the going black market rate, and even a couple of weeks ago, when the Venezuelan government auctioned off dollars through a new system called SICAD (Sistema Complementario de Administración de Divisas) to currency-starved importers, they didn’t release the price for which the dollars sold, but it’s rumored to be something like between 10 and 15, which is quite a devaluation from the 6.3 rate.

It’s still technically illegal for local media to report any black market rates for the bolívar, of course — through March, at least, you could follow the price through a plucky Twitter account, which slyly presented the daily price for ‘fresh avocados.’ That account — and another one, for ‘fresh lettuce,’ shut down after Venezuelans, their businesses starved for vital dollars, lost their bolívares in a twisted online scam.

The new SICAD dollar auction comes after a formal devaluation in February, which lowered the rate from 4.3 bolívares to 6.3.

It’s fairly common for people to talk about two devaluations, in fact — the first formal devaluation of the official exchange rate from 4.3 to 6.3, and the second informal devaluation, whereby Venezuelans may have been buying dollars from the government for as high a price as 15 bolívares.

(Oh, by the way — the actual price of an avocado? I bought a huge one today for 60 bolívares. A tube of imported toothpaste manufactured in the United States, which is subsidized, costs just 20 bolívares. Another example of the distortions in a heavily-subsidized economy that depends on imports for many of its staples.) Continue reading Not a banana republic, but an avocado economy

Maduro campaign active on penultimate campaign day in Caracas


CARACAS, Venezuela — One morning spent traipsing through Sabana Grande and Altamira is all you need to know who has the greater resources in Venezuela’s snap presidential campaign.Venezuela Flag Icon

It’s clear that election activity is very much in full swing. In the heart of cosmopolitan Caracas — and even in the eastern districts that are wealthier and which you’d expect to be very much behind opposition candidate Henrique Capriles — the more pronounced street presence belongs to the chavistas and their candidate, acting president Nicolás Maduro, the hand-picked candidate of his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez (pictured below in effigy in Altamira earlier today), notwithstanding a massive rally last Sunday on the Avenida Bolívar in support of Capriles.


It’s astonishing the extent to which the Maduro campaign is really just a rehash of the October 2012 Chávez campaign — at one booth on the Sabana Grande, a Maduro volunteer handed me a poster of el comandante himself with a pamphlet describing Chávez’s 2012 campaign plan for the next term. While it’s a function of facility, there’s also certainly no electoral downside for Maduro in making Chávez very much his 2013 running mate.

Capriles signs are few and far between, but they do exist and they are around, though I certainly didn’t see much in the way of boisterous caravans of Capriles supporters in the way that red-shirted chavistas paraded throughout the city today:



I didn’t see much in the way of anti-chavista or anti-Maduro graffiti, though it’s very much in favor of Maduro — and in opposition to Capriles. Here’s one building with the words ‘un gran cobero,’ a slur that roughly translates to ‘big liar’ in Venezuelan slang, against Capriles that Chávez was known to use in the 2012 campaign:


I’ve never been to a country with such a basketcase economy (more on that later), Maduro has less personal commitment and charisma than Chávez had, Capriles has run a much more aggressive campaign, and polls even showed the race tightening last week. So there’s really no way to extrapolate a Maduro victory just because the government has more resources to use to bring carloads of supporters out or to print more posters to hand out. But if one morning and afternoon stroll is worth anything (and it’s anecdotal, nothing more), Maduro has the upper hand — the key, of course, is whether the ground game on Sunday will turn out as effectively.

Photo credit to Kevin Lees.

The political geography of Caracas


When you fly into Caracas, you fly into Maiquetía on the coast — at basically sea level, Maiquetía is everything you’d expect from a sweltering, languid coastal climate in the Caribbean.

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The coast is really just a narrow strip of land, the ‘Litoral Central,’ prone to mudslides and which has a coastal attitude separated from Caracas proper by a mountain — El Ávila, which rises 8,000 feet from the coast before cascading back down into a valley of around 3,000 feet.

That’s Caracas, there in the valley, which enjoys more temperate weather than the coast from which El Áliva separates it. But as the city has grown exponentially to include up to 3 million residents since its initial burst of oil-fueled growth in the 1950s, Caracas has expanded out from the valley and into the mountains above.

So when you come into Caracas, you drive first from the coast up to the mountains, where your first impression is a sea of shanties in the barrios overlooking the valley.

Though there’s an east-west socioeconomic divide (unlike London, Caracas’s east side is tonier), the central geographic feature of Caracas is that the higher up you go, the poorer it gets.  Like Lima (pictured below) or the famous favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the best real estate is owned by the poorest residents of the city.


That’s ultimately at odds with the norm throughout much of the rest of the world, where the highest real estate belongs to the wealthiest. Think about New Orleans in 2005 — the wealthier Ninth Ward was spared the brute force of Hurricane Katrina that essentially destroyed lower-lying areas. Think of New York, and the consistent march of the aristocracy uptown in the 19th century. The same holds true of Los Angeles County and the Hollywood Hills, or of Montmarte in Paris or even cities like Port-au-Prince. I can’t find the link, but I’ve read studies that indicate this was because higher-elevation real estate was originally healthier when cities originally developed — farther from the sewage and other microbes further below.

Today, there’s not much risk of cholera or other 18th century illnesses afflicting anyone at any altitude in Caracas. But of course, much of the poverty in Caracas, and the corresponding violence that afflicts Caracas, (that’s made Caracas increasingly one of the most dangerous cities in the world), takes place in the barrios far higher than the valley below.

Top photo credit to Caracas1010a, bottom photo credit to Kevin Lees — Cerro San Cristobal, Lima, November 2010.