Ask anyone at all and they’ll tell you: hands down, the three most feared words in Venezuela’s bureaucratic vocabulary are “there’s no material.”
It’s a kind of code phrase, meaning something like “no, seriously, there’s no use trying to bribe me: I genuinely can’t help you.” The cargo gods have not come through. For whatever reason, the tenuous link with the fairy country that manufactures the little physical booklets that, provided a photo and a battery of official stamps, become passports, has been severed.
For what reason? For how long?
These are questions no sane Venezuelan ever asks.
I ran into the dreaded phrase at El Llanito’s INTTT Inspectoría, Venezuela’s DMV, as I went to get my driver’s license renewed.
“No, mi amor, es que no hay material.”
Oh shit. Well, “y ¿cómo hago?” I say in a gambit to see if there’s some back channel way to get that covetted bit of laminated plastic.
Amazingly, uncharacteristically, it works…for some baffling reason, she takes a shine to me and decides to confide.
“Mira,” she says, “word on the street is that they’ll have material tomorrow in Los Chaguaramos. Otherwise, you can try again here next week.”
I can’t believe my luck. I have a tip, an actual dato, straight from the functionariate’s mouth, good as gold.
“Muchas gracias, amiga,” I say and rush out smiling, actually happy, as though I haven’t just wasted a trip that cost me an hour and a half in traffic.
The next day I go to the bank to pay my fee and then rush off to the Inspectoría in Los Chaguaramos, getting there at about 9:00 a.m.
Or, rather, I get to the metal fence setting off the Inspectoría from the sidewalk. A little hubbub of maybe 20 or 25 people are crowding in on the gate, as one single guy – a security guard – holds off the barbarian masses, trying to give out information one case at a time.
I kind of jostle my way up to the front and eventually get to ask him, “amigo, to renew my license?” as I show him my documents.
“Yeah, ok, we have 30 spots, and it’s first come first serve, so you better get in line right there.”
He points to a spot just outside the gate, on the sidewalk. I’m amazed, there’s just a handful of people in line there. “This is going to be a piece of cake,” I think to myself.
“Disculpe, is this the line for license renewals?” I ask the guys in line. They nod.
“And do you know what time they’ll let us in?”
“At 1:30,” one of them says.
“Yeah, 1:30…this is the line for the afternoon spots…the morning people already went in.”
“Ay coño,” I say, and add… “pero, sí hay material, ¿verdad?”
They all nod, a little too eagerly for my taste, as though they’re trying to convince themselves.
“That’s what they said…30 plásticos this afternoon.”
Bueno…nothing to be done. Just hunker down for four and a half hours on a sidewalk in Los Chaguaramos breathing exhaust fumes and passing the time who knows how.
Damn it, I should’ve had breakfast.
The vexation on my face must’ve been pretty clear, cuz one of the guys looks at me and says “c’mon, chamo, don’t make such a face: just think, this señor here’s been doing this for a whole week.”
I look at the round faced man just ahead of me in line.
He smiles, beatifically, obviously way past getting exasperated by this kind of thing anymore.
“You have no idea what they’ve put me through this week…” he pauses, thinking through the memories. “I spent all day queuing at El Llanito on Monday just to be told at the end that they’d run out of plásticos…on Tuesday they said they had no more material and didn’t know when any more would be coming in. Lost day. Wednesday a friend told me to head out to Los Teques and try there so I had to shell out for transport to get all the way out there, but it was a bust there as well. They told me to come here…and yesterday it was just like today, they said they had 30 plasticos, and I was number 23 in line, but right as I got up to the front, after 8, count them, eight hours standing here taking the sun like a rooftile, they said no, ‘es que se acabó el material’ and sent me home.”
He pauses, savoring the string of disasters.
“Bueno, the good thing is that at this point I’m immunized against frustration,” he says, shrugging the whole thing off. “Today I came even earlier and now I’m fifth in line. If they turn me away again I’ll toss a Molotov cocktail in there.”
It’s the kind of story to put my own problems in perspective.
“Thing is, I’m a transportista, a bus driver,” he continues, “so every day without a license is a day I can’t work, and a day I don’t work is a day I don’t bring home anything to my family.”
A bit of a circle is forming around the guy’s story. Everybody’s nodding. Pretty soon one of the other guys pipes in as well.
“That’s where I’m at too. The guy who owns the microbus I drive won’t let me go out without a license. The bribes we have to pay the cops if we get caught are so high they’d wipe out two weeks worth of work. But in the meantime…hell, you know how it is, we’re contractors, we don’t work we don’t earn.”
“¿Oh yeah?” one-week-running-after-a-license-man says, “¿what part of town do you cover?”
Pretty soon, it’s social hour at the license renewal line. Everybody knows we’re in for a long wait and conversation seems like as good a way to pass the time as any.
I find Venezuelans remarkably good humored in situations like this. I’m surrounded by people suffering real economic hardship because the damn government can’t get it together to source enough drivers’ license cards, but nobody really bitches. They crack jokes, trade stories, share anecdotes about being held up during work, and soon a pretty strong esprit de corps is arising in our group.
In my little sector of the line we have three bus drivers, a taxi driver, a guy who runs an ice delivery truck, a housewife who needs her license to drive her kids to school, and a guy doing a PhD in political science in Europe. It strikes me that standing in line waiting to be humiliated by the bureaucracy is one of the few spaces for genuine social equality in Venezuela. Right here, right now, there are no social distinctions: we really are all the same.
One thing is clear, though: nobody brings up politics. We’re strangers. More than likely some of us are chavistas and some are anti-. Bringing it up could only bust the vibe we’ve developed. It’s not a risk worth taking.
Just to keep things from getting too chaotic, somebody pulls out a pen and a note pad and starts making little numbered slips so we each know what our exact place in line is. The move makes the gate guard nervous. He comes over and warns us in no uncertain terms that the inspectoría will not recognize those numbers, that come 1:30 it’ll still be first come, first serve. His tone is that of a dad warning a 6 year old kid.
We grin and bear it: however squalid his little quota of power may be, right here, right now, he is the one guy we can’t afford to piss off. We reassure him we’re just doing it to keep track of who’s where among ourselves. But, actually, by this point, it’s kind of superfluous…we’ve spent 2 hours in this line already, talking, hanging out, and by now everybody knows who’s in what spot in line. The chances of someone cutting and getting away with it are nil.
Come to think of it, if the gate guard wasn’t treating us like shit, would we be bonding the way we are? I kind of doubt it…when you get right down to it, the only thing bringing us together is the disdain of officialdom.
Still, we’re antsy…we kind of feel better with an actual number in hand, whether Power chooses to recognize it or now.
At about 11:30 I fall into a one-on-one conversation with Nelson, one of the bus drivers. After asking me a few questions about public transport in Holland (yes, a bus ride really does cost Bs.7,000 there, no, you don’t get a Welcome Drink for that kind of money) he decides to confide.
“Really I’m an accountant,” he tells me, “I got my degree from INCE, but you know how the vaina is, I couldn’t get a job so…now I drive a bus.”
I ask him about his work. He lives up in El Junquito and drives down into downtown Caracas a couple of times per morning. He tells me about the intricacies of timing his runs just right to maximize his take. Go too early and there aren’t any passengers. Go too late, and there’s too much traffic. You only make money when you’re loading passengers, and you can’t load passengers if you’re stuck in a traffic jam.
The best, he reckons, is to set off at about 5 a.m., that’s pretty much the sweet spot when good passenger numbers meet relatively unclogged streets. Then he gets back to El Junquito by about 6:30 and has a nice, leisurely breakfast just long enough to miss the student-heavy time slot; another variable in his little optimization problem.
“Students? Why do you go out of your way to avoid them? Are they really that rauckous?”
“Nah,” he says, “it’s the student ticket thing.”
He explains that they’re not allowed to charge students full fare. Technically, the government is supposed to make up the difference but, surprise surprise, refunds are invariably late.
“Right now, the delay in getting paid is about three months,” he says, “and hell, I studied accounting, so I know exactly what that’s called: a forced loan. Interest free, to boot.”
With inflation running as high as it is, the bolivars they get paid three months late can be worth a good 8% less than the bolivars they were originally forced to loan the government, he explains. It’s just not good business, driving during time slots when half your customers are going to be students, he explains. Not surprisingly, kids have a hell of a tough time finding a bus to get on to get to school in the morning…just one more downside to schooling, one more prod to drop out.
Just then, we see a military vehicle pull up to the Inspectoría gates. Three, four, five army guys in uniform make their way inside. The line goes from sociable to restless.
“¡Que arrechera, chamo!” one of the guys says, “man that pisses me off! Each one of those guys going in is one less plástico for us.”
We’ve been standing out there for three and a half hours, now. It’s noon, it’s hot, some of us haven’t had breakfast. Nobody dares make too much of a fuss, though. Those guys are army, y’know.
Within five minutes, the gate guard comes out to announce that, mysteriously, there are now just 25 plásticos to hand out today. The back of the line (which, in effect, has just been told that no hay material) is more deflated than furious. They slink off, muttering cuss words but resigned to come again the next day.
It’s the DMV, after all: it’s not like you can go to the competition if they give you shitty service.
As 1:30 draws near, a palpable sense of expectation builds in the line. Soon, the carefully differentiated lines for license renewals, first-time licenses, and car registrations that had remained neatly separate all morning all clump together into a mass around the door.
The gate guard definitely can’t cope. Soon, he’s pretty much forced to rely on the little scribbled numbers he’s already told us he wouldn’t accept. People shove and push and yell and you can’t really tell if people are cutting in line in front of you or if they’re just from one of the other lines that’ve gotten all mushed up into one big melée. The people from “my” line try to help each other out, as far as possible, but frankly that’s not very far. It’s pretty much chaos as the gate guard gets into a series of increasingly testy exchanges with the hordes clamoring to get inside.
“Lo que pasa,” he yells at us in exasperation, “is that you people aren’t properly organized! You need to get organized, otherwise look at the chaos we’re left with!”
In time, a Tránsito Terrestre official comes out to look over this mess. He sees the gate guard arguing with the users, shakes his head, and reprimands him, saying – loud enough for all of us to hear – “why do you waste your time talking to them? Don’t talk to them, man…no hables con ellos.”
In his own, haplessly testy way, the gate guard was treating us like human beings. Rookie mistake, obviously.
In the end, I manage to sneak in somehow and hand in my documents:
- One cédula copy – check.
- One bank payment slip – check.
- One certificado médico – check.
- One renewal form – check.
Now we wait inside the gate, finally sitting in proper chairs and under a bit of shade, it feels like relative luxury as we finish the conversations we’d started earlier. A half hour later, a Tránsito Terrestre official comes out and starts calling out names, handing out our 25 renewed licenses. I tremble in anticipation when he calls out Toro…
As I stroke my still warm plastic, I can’t help but muse on how thoroughly, gallopingly pointless the whole exercise is. Nothing I did, no part of the bureaucratic nightmare at all had even the slightest, most oblique bearing on my ability to drive a car. None whatsoever. There were no tests, practical or theoretical, no checks of accident records, no part of the procedure has anything to do with driving at all…and yet, if you want to drive a vehicle in Venezuela, you have to subject yourself to this baffling set of low level humiliations once every ten years, just because.
For me, normally stuck away in a Dutch provincial town, the whole thing was a bit of a curiosity, almost worth it just for the chance to talk at leisure with an accountant buseta driver. But for these other guys, the hours or days spent dealing with all this idiocy are days of real economic hardship, days of wages foregone for people living a hand-to-mouth existence.
Their good cheer baffled and charmed me, yes, but seemed to me also just a case of learned helplessness, of a deeply justified intuition that it’s just always been like this and it’s just never going to get better so what’s the point of getting upset?
As I left the Inspectoría with my plástico burning a hole in my pocket, I noticed a sign gracing the inside of the gate. In big, propagandistic blue letters it belted out,
“Now getting your license is easier!”