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In Venezuela, Christmas is a luxury few can afford

Many Venezuelans won’t be able to celebrate Christmas this year. Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

Caracas is not feeling the Christmas spirit. The city is desolate. Gone is the cosmopolitan rhythm that even until a few months ago has always characterised it. The city moves slowly, its stores abandoned, residents more focused on resolving basic necessities than with celebrating Christmastime.

Buy a ham, make tamales, string up lights? Those rituals seem irrelevant to many.

It’s been a hard year for Venezuela. Hugo Chávez promised that his “21st Century Socialism” would be a luminous moment in human history and a solution to the troubles of the poor. But it more closely resembles the “Real Socialism” of the last century, with the government of Nicolas Maduro restricting individual liberties and turning citizens into clients of populism that looks everyday more like fascism.

Scarcity itself has become a form of social control. With so many Venezuelans spending their days waiting in lines to get food, medicine, and, most recently (and fruitlessly), cash, there’s little time for protest. Christmas carolling and Christmas bonuses have been replaced with interminable queuing.

The government can try to cover up just how bad things have gotten. But Venezuelans know that this year, for many, there will be no Christmas. Holiday spirit just can’t quite overcome the disappointment, hunger, exhaustion and rage. And behold: a country of empty toy stores, bakeries without bread, tamales missing ingredients, and families who can’t visit each other. There’s just not enough money.

In this economy of survival, some of us are lucky enough to eat several meals a day. Others dig through garbage for bread crusts, a veritable army of the famished who take to the streets every morning and sleep under open skies at night – a daily reminder that we’ve all gotten poorer over the past few months.

A year without Christmas

Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen once noted that the world has never seen famine in a democratic country. That’s because, Sen would say, democracy’s system of collective controls contribute to good governance, compelling leaders to change public policies that aren’t working.

It is perhaps early to speak of famine in Venezuela. But thanks to bad policies that have favoured rent-seeking over productive activities, we indubitably know hunger.

Venezuela, one of the world’s top oil producers, once underwent an economic diversification process based on import substition to reduce its dependency on oil. Today we are economically dependent, beholden both to oil production and imported goods. We’ve lost the ability to create.

Many toys will remain unpurchased this Christmas season in Venezuela. Ueslei Marcelino/RE

The nature of the scorpion

Venezuela has become an Ochlocracy – a government by the multitude – in which the Maduro administration has acted systematically to break people of their will while rationalising decisions based on what it determines to be their “spirit”. This no longer resembles a modern democratic regime.

The government has done everything possible to prevent a referendum that could recall president Nicolas Maduro, as the opposition proposed earlier in 2016.

Nor are we likely to have the gubernatorial elections scheduled for December 2016, with the excuse that there’s no money to hold them. That may be true as far as it goes, but what’s more true is that Venezuela has all but lost its capacity to deal with problems of governance using its democratic institutions.

Still, if this is authoritarianism, it’s an odd kind: it gains strength and maintains its power using democratic formats. Maduro proposes elections (which are sometimes held) and appeals to the constitution when making (unconstitutional) decisions.

That’s why the Vatican’s peace dialogues could never work (and aren’t working): like Aesop’s fabled scorpion, which ends up stinging the frog that helped it cross the river, Venezuela’s government cannot go against its own nature.

Checkout lines at Christmas markets have been replaced this year by endless queues at the bank. Marco Bello/Reuters

Less money, more problems

Christmas shopping is made infinitely harder in Venezuela right now not just because people don’t have enough money (though they don’t) but also because, physically, there isn’t enough money.

In early December the government made the surprise announcement that it would be phasing out and replacing certain low-denomination bolívar bills and coins. With Venezuela’s hyperinflation having reached around 700%, such small amounts have been rendered essentially useless.

Under this scheme, the 100 bolívar bill, currently Venezuela’s highest banknote, would be pulled from the market and substituted with 500, 2,000 and 20,000 bolívar notes. The 100 bolívar bills were summarily ditched – but new bills never arrived and no replacements have been put into circulation.

It is impossible to understand the reasoning behind this unannounced, improvised policy that has essentially frozen people’s bank accounts at a time of year when access to funds is most needed.

First, we saw long bank lines. Then, over the past week, as people have been unable to cash checks, make purchases (including Christmas presents) or pay for public transit, complaint has turned to violent protests and looting.

As I write this article, there’s mixed information about what’s going on in Venezuela. Facing both government censorship and self-censorship, Venezuelans have limited communication and access to information. It makes the already numbing uncertainty and fear worse. But social media is bursting with images of stores being sacked in Ciudad Bolívar, tension flaring en Táchira, mass demonstrations in Maracaibo, and stress in Valencia.

Venezuela is not a modern democracy experiencing some bumps in the road. It is important that readers understand that the country has gone over the edge, from civilisation to barbarity. We find ourselves with an authoritarian government clinging to power and indifferent to the suffering of its people. This is not how democracy works.

Here’s my Christmas wish list: an economy that’s more efficient and less corrupt, one in which personal interests and business lobbies don’t get privileged access to foreign exchange while citizens can barely pay their bills. And if Santa is taking note, I would also like to restore the separation of powers, the independent judiciary, and the right to protest without indiscriminate, violent reprisal.

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