My Wealthy Country Became A Dystopia Overnight: 6 Realities
We like apocalypse fantasies because a part of us thinks it would be kind of fun. No bills to pay, no job to drag yourself to -- life goes back to basics. You don't watch The Hunger Games and really think about what it would be like to have a toothache or yeast infection you can't treat. And you certainly don't think of it as something that can actually occur.
But as we like to point out in these articles, there's always an apocalypse somewhere. We're talking about countries in which life was fairly normal a few years ago, until the day when everything fell apart. Today's example: Venezuela. Once on the road to becoming an economic powerhouse, Venezuela is now one of the poorest and most dangerous countries on Earth. We sat down with one citizen to learn what happens when your country's economy and government just ... stop working.
Any Economy Can Suddenly Collapse
Above and below are pictures of our source's local grocery store in the middle of an average day:
Nothing but Doritos. Worse than nothing at all, really.
Those weren't taken on the eve of some big national drinking party. Food simply ... doesn't show up anymore. On the rare occasions the stores have stock, people queue up in block-spanning lines that would make Weimar-era Germans wince. All to get their hands on flour, soap, or the almost-mythical Coca-Cola.
They debate sightings like it's some sugary Bigfoot.
Our source took that picture illegally, by the way. Photos of bread lines, he says, "'promote discomfort and give a bad name to the country.' I faced the risk of receiving a ticket or having my camera taken."
That's what zoom lenses are for.
This is the part where you think, "Well, that's what you get under radical socialism. But that could never happen in America!" But until recently, their grocery stores looked the same as yours, except with more accent marks in the product names. Now, Venezuelans are only legally allowed to shop twice a week, and they have to hope they pick a day when looters don't show up. There was no evil commie conspiracy; just a spiral of bad decisions. We're not saying it's likely that you're going to wake up one day and go through the same thing where you live, but it's not impossible. An economy can be a fragile thing.
Be happy you can order groceries online ... for now.
But disaster creates opportunity. One of Venezuela's few growth industries revolves around helping people with money avoid the worst of the scarcity. Bachaqueros ("voracious insect," basically, so it's not a respected gig) buy up as much as they can find, and then resell it on the black market. Our source explains, "A carton of milk sells for one dollar. The bachaqueros sell it for eight to nine. That undermines the economy, because normal people can't get those products. The minimum wage most people get is not enough."
Bachaqueros befriend store owners and cashiers to get around fingerprint-enforced purchase limits. Your average Joe can only buy two cartons of milk a week ... unless he goes to the bachaqueros, who dodge those rules to stock up. You can also pay bachaqueros to stand in line for you, which sounds like laziness until you discover that a line can stretch for six hours. It's reached the point where social media is used to discuss toilet paper strategy. "You can ask on Instagram or Twitter. People will find you, and you can buy in bulk. We have 50 rolls on hand, and we stock up every time we can, because we don't know when there's going to be a shortage again. The most common alternative is to shower right after going to the bathroom. The smallest denomination of money is used for toilet paper, because it's worthless."
We're fairly sure that wasn't a figure of speech.
You Suddenly Can't Leave The House After Dark
Venezuela's crime rate is out of control, because you'd consider a life of crime too if you had to wait six hours to get sandwich ingredients. Caracas, the capital, is now deadlier than Baghdad. We told you before how terrifying it is to live there, but life can be just as dangerous outside the city.
Exhibit A: What's known as a "Venezuela parking ticket."
That's our source's car. While it was parked in front of his house, someone straight-up walked off with his wheels. And of course he can't replace them, because they're going through shortages of more than food. It's everything. "There's no accountability for the thieves; everyone can do whatever they want. And I cannot go to the police, because the police are either in cahoots [with the criminals] or won't do anything."
Don't ask where they got those wheels.
But at least our source hasn't been, you know, murdered. So there's that. "After 6 p.m., no one is really safe. You see fewer and fewer people going to the clubs or the cinema, because going outside has been horrible. If you go outside and you don't have anything [of value, criminals] still kill you. Because you're worthless. The thieves have seen that even if they use force, they're hardly ever convicted of crimes. Even the policemen ask to pass through [gang-run areas]."
Why would the police bust their asses to arrest dangerous criminals when their reward would be, at best, a raise or a bonus that they could spend on ... nothing? Better to stay on the side of the people who have access to food and toilet paper, even if they're murdering to get it.
All right, so here's the question looming over all of this: How does a previously-stable country reach the point where going out after dark is risking death? Was there an invasion that decimated the government and infrastructure? A natural disaster? Did they bet the national treasury on the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl last year? Nope! And in fact, we bet it's something that you'd never suspect ...
Your Cheap Gas Is Their Catastrophe
Hey, remember how like five years ago we were certain that the world was running out of oil and gas prices shot up to $4.00 a gallon? And have you noticed that you're paying like $1.75 now (depending on where you live)? That's because worldwide petroleum prices have collapsed. So that's good news for working folks with a commute, but bad news for a country like Venezuela.
"We need a carbon tax, with the proceeds buying milk for Venezuelans!"
-- a plan that would surely popular with everyone
You probably didn't know that Venezuela has the most oil of anyone. No, really -- they're sitting on more oil than Saudi Araba, and they have almost as much as Iran and Iraq combined. Three times as much as Russia. So back in the day, it didn't seem like a terrible idea when Hugo Chavez dumped billions into social programs. Oil prices were high and profits were up, so why not make it rain? Hell, Kuwait regularly gives its citizens cash payouts and free food with their ridiculous oil revenues. Saudi Arabia does it too.
But then oil prices fell, and kept falling, and it came as a complete shock to the Venezuelan government, which had sort of assumed that oil would keep going up in value until it was either exhausted or Earth moved to a Star Trek-like post-currency utopia. "But," you're probably thinking, "Why wasn't everybody filthy rich from the days when our drivers were paying through the nose?" Good question. Part of the answer is that the country was laughably corrupt even when times were good. For years, the government allowed businessmen to siphon away tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue. And so instead of having a safety cushion to keep the country going through some lean years, Venezuela ended up with a patch of cement to splatter against.
Pictured: the Venezuelan economy.
So the oil money dried up, and all the things you should be able to expect a socialist government to provide -- water, electricity, law enforcement -- suddenly became either unreliable or nonexistent, forcing people to either turn to expensive private entities or go without. A system that appeared flawed but solid ("Sure there's corruption, but we're sitting on an ocean of oil, bitch!") turned out to be a house of cards. And once things start going bad, well ...
Attempts To Fix The Economy Created A Death Spiral
We opened this article with images of empty shelves and Coca-Cola refrigerators. But while standing in line for tampons isn't much fun, let's allow our source to make it clear how bad things can get:
"My family [has a lot of doctors]. They have a clinic. You cannot find aspirin, or basic products like stomach pumps and scalpels. The only company that produces synthetic adrenaline left the country because there is strict monetary control. Companies cannot import medical supplies. So you go to any hospital, and you can see people on the floor bleeding and dying because they don't have enough beds, scalpels, cleaning agents ... "
One room has a mop. That's the best room.
There are references there to things like "monetary control," and we don't intend to bore you with a lesson in how an economy works, other than to point out that nobody really understands how a fucking economy works. Remember that the richest and smartest investors in the USA lost billions in the 2008 market crash because they had no idea it was coming. Collapses only make sense in retrospect, and trying to stop one in progress can be like trying to get your tumbling Jenga pieces to land perfectly back in the shape of a tower.
Frantically blowing on falling
blocks economic systems works less than 10 percent of the time.
So when things started going to shit, the government decided to grab the wheel and try to get the skid under control. You know how in tough economic times, people in the USA tend to blame foreigners (like those damned Chinese companies stealing our jobs, or those lazy Mexicans stealing our tax dollars)? Well, that happened there, too. The feeling was that Venezuela was getting exploited by all those damned foreign countries. So the government started seizing the assets of foreign companies doing business there. (Or rather, "buying" them for a fraction of their price -- Exxon, for example, was made to "sell" $900 million of assets for $250 million.) The government, of course, did not have the slightest idea how to manage what they acquired, and things only got worse. The country's currency became all but worthless, and the economy collapsed into chaos.
The wealthy quickly started to exchange their local currency (bolivars) for good old Yankee bucks that would hold their value, so the government quickly made that illegal. But then businesses couldn't import goods, since they couldn't use dollars and nobody outside Venezuela wanted their worthless currency. And that, friends, is how you get a scarcity crisis in which buying toilet paper is a monthly holiday and hospital patients wind up sleeping on the floor.
Current value places bolivars somewhere between Monopoly money and Chuck E. Cheese tokens.
It's also how you get a new black market. The most prized item? Those American dollars. "There's a website, Dollar Today ... right now, you can buy one dollar for 900 bolivars. The minimum wage in Venezuela is 9,000 bolivars a month. There are people who buy dollars, wait for them to go up, and sell. That's the safest market Venezuela has. Because they're always going to go up, and you'll never lose your investment."
Did you catch that? When they bet on the dollars to always go up, they mean in comparison to their local currency. They're betting that their own country will continue to go to shit.
The People In Charge Become Criminals
As we mentioned, Venezuela is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which makes it difficult to do the whole "socialist paradise" thing. Transparency International ranks countries based on corruption, and in 2015, Venezuela came in 158th out of 167, behind noted bastions of good governance like Syria and Myanmar. Here's one fun example: 90 percent of Venezuela suffers from a powdered milk shortage, because the government-run company responsible for distributing it to protein-starved children was caught illegally selling it to Colombia.
Not the typical white powder you associate with the South American black market.
Most of you are fortunate enough to live in a country where saying "the politicians are criminals" usually isn't literal. We say a senator is corrupt because they take money from lobbyists and give contracts to companies run by their friends. That sucks, but at least they're not outright selling crack on the streets. But if there's not enough rule of law to keep tires from being stolen, then there sure as hell isn't enough to make sure the president's family isn't running narcotics.
Thus, two nephews of the current president were caught trying to smuggle 800 freaking kilograms of cocaine into the US through Haiti. That wasn't their personal hobby. The government and drug cartels aren't merely in bed together; they're experimenting with kinky new positions most people would never dream of. Two military officers were recently indicted for trafficking. The current head of the National Guard was charged with taking money to warn cartels about raids. Two high-ranking police officials were indicted for laundering drug money. We could go on for a while.
"We'll ask this anti-drug official for comment as soon as we finish indicting him."
So how does a government this corrupt and incompetent stay in power? Well ...
Scarcity Can Be A Weapon
Opposition to America and capitalism is a huge part of Venezuelan politics, partially because America makes a convenient scapegoat and partially because we did kinda try to overthrow or kill Hugo Chavez a few times. Our bad. "One of [Chavez's] biggest and earliest achievements was creating a national mindset in which the 'People' were poor, needy, and supporters of his ideals, and the rest were dissidents, traitors, or 'Pitiyanqui.'"
That means "little Yankee," and Chavez started using the term in 2008, when the economy began to weaken. The implication was if you're a patriotic Venezuelan, these shortages won't bother you because you don't care about material possessions, man (at which point Chavez presumably took a huge bong hit). But that's all part of how everything is politicized in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government uses scarcity to identify and shame "dissidents" -- which in this context means anyone who wants a kitchen with snacks in it.
Chavez's no-snack policy was a "Do as I say, not as I do" thing.
We interviewed our source in the middle of an election, and government propaganda claimed that the opposition was teaming up with the US to create the scarcity. In one TV ad, a humble poor woman is waiting for her free government house. She asks when it will be ready, only to be told that she now has to pay for it. Then she wakes up from her horrible nightmare and resolves to vote for the government before the opposition takes charge and dooms her. "If you vote for the opposition, you're [told you're] going to lose your houses, your privileges, that you won't be able to buy [food staples]. It's a very powerful message."
But not quite powerful enough, as those elections have since happened and saw the opposition party make significant gains. The government didn't sit back and accept defeat, though. Two days later, our source told us that toilet paper was mysteriously impossible to find again, even on the black market. Remember that when you vote for president, Americans. No matter how much you may hate one candidate, they're not going to take away your TP out of spite.
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