September 30, 2013. Venezuelan President Maduro expels three American Embassy officials, accusing them of economic and political sabotage. Early next morning, my phone rings. Familiar circumstances, new voice:
NSA here. We have reason to believe Secretary Kerry wanted to contact you about the Venezuela situation, but, with his staff on furlough, he’s tied up with Syria. Seems Assad’s poisoning ’em again … fluoridating the water supply. We need you in Caracas ASAP. Put it on your credit card. You’ll get reimbursed if the government reopens.
My country calling yet again, I couldn’t refuse. I spent the rest of the morning packing, watching telenovelas to hone my Spanish, and checking Wikipedia for the scoop on key Venezuela issues: inflation; shortage of market staples, notably toilet paper; country-wide power outages.
Near midnight that evening, I found myself on the outskirts of Caracas, untangling my parachute from a large tree, making a rudimentary sling from my handkerchief, and using my good hand to flag down a cab that, by luck, was cruising the neighborhood.
When we reached the hotel, I got my first glimpse of the situation. The driver demanded 9,000 bolivares for a ride that the zone map said should be 7,400. When I balked, he said one word — Inflacion — and pointed to a meter that, he explained, was linked to the Central Bank’s real-time inflation index. I had to pay, though I covered the extra cost by undertipping.
The second eye-opener followed quickly. When I checked in, the hotel clerk recommended advance-payment at an extra 15%. Since you’re booked for three days, he said, that’s only 5% per day, which is bound to beat the inflation rate. And don’t put it on your card. I can get you a fantastic rate, straight cash. I took the offer, which proved to be a winner.
When I got into my room, the situation got personal. No toilet paper! Instead, there was a stack of out-of-circulation, pre-2008 bolivares on a table next to the toilet. In a fancy hotel like this one, I muttered, I would at least have expected new bills.
At breakfast the next morning, more evidence: pretty good pancakes ruined by cheap Canadian maple syrup. (I would at least have expected Vermont.)
I decided to check on Caracas’s biggest supermarket, the government-run Bicentenario. The situation was not good. Shopping carts were in short supply (rumor is, shoppers liberate them to use as baby carriages). The shelves were not exactly bare, but some use-by dates would have qualified for pensions and many cans had suspicious bulges. I looked for toilet paper, but found only bound stacks of old bolivares.
Just as I was about to leave, the power went out and the well-drilled staff immediately instituted what has become known as the Blackout Markdown, a slight misnomer since, by immediately freezing the listed price rather than (like taxis) pegging the price-at-the-cash-register to the real-time inflation index, it was technically a Non-Markup.
I also spent a lot of time observing people on the street: pedestrians rushing grimly about their business, eyes-down, silent, determined; drivers running lights, blocking intersections, honking their horns. It was not a pretty sight.
Three days of investigation confirmed my initial impressions:
The behavior of Caraquenos proves nothing about Venezuela’s political or economic situation or alleged U.S. meddling. City dwellers everywhere are a tough, suspicious bunch.
The truth lies deeper.
Charges of U.S. sabotage are nonsense. Venezuela does, indeed, have major problems, but it is fully capable of creating a national train wreck on its own. Though we, too, are pretty good at financial mismanagement and political paralysis, Venezuela is far more skilled at these than we are. We have nothing to offer, no matter how much we may want to help.