Amazingly, some bits of Bolivarian bureaucracy actually do work properly. Among them is the system for giving out passports, which has morphed from insane, Kafkaesque ordeal to freakishly quick and stress-free tramite in the last few years: a 10 minute web form, some copies, a bank deposit, and then you wait a few days for an email giving you an automatically-generated appointment at a Saime office. Easy pleasy.
Alas, my appointment turned out to be in Ocumare del Tuy, about an hour and a half southwest of Caracas. No problem, I trekked on out there, parked, and set out across the Plaza Bolívar to the Saime office.
Except, something seemed to be going on in the Plaza. A bunch of olive-green tents were set up, with people queuing to get to rows of lap-top enabled operativo workers. Soldiers with AKs guarded the whole thing. From the center of the square, we were soon treated to a rousing recording of Chávez – yes, Chávez – singing the National Anthem, followed by a recording of the PSUV party anthem at full blast.
Some kind of incestuous PSUV-Army-Pueblo clusterfuck, no doubt – but I had no time for it, I needed my passport.
At the Saime office I really had to pinch myself to believe I wasn’t dreaming it all or back in Quebec somehow – official paperwork was never meant to be this straightforward and hassle-free. It’s unvenezuelan, if you ask me.
Ten minutes later, tramite done, I’m walking back across Ocumare’s Plaza Bolívar and notice the preliminaries are over. An MC has taken up the mike and is in the middle of the square. With his best fake VTV Telonero voice, he starts announcing, “and now, we proceed to assign this brand new washing machine to Mrs. Fulanita De Tal”. Only then do I notice the big lines of huge Haier cardboard boxes in the middle of the square.
“Ah claro,” I think to myself, “they’re giving out appliances!”
Welcome to Misión Mi Casa Bien Equipada: the government’s Chinese appliance clientelist spree. Chávez claims some 3 million appliances, TVs and AC units will be distributed at knock-down prices through the misión before the year is out. (Consider: there are 6 million households in Venezuela.)
Everything on offer is Haier branded and, I suspect, the operational face of the infamous, hyper-opaque $30+ billion Export-Loans-for-Future-Oil deal with the Chinese, where Chávez gets paid for tomorrow’s oil barrels with today’s clientelist goodies.
At first I thought the Misión was a straight-out giveaway, but poking around online I see it’s more like a subsidy within a subsidy. You do have to pay for your Haier products, but the government sells you the stuff at deeply discounted prices, then lets you pay over time at very low interest rate loans from state-owned banks, but only if you’re in the “qualified” category.
As you can already intuit from that, there’s a nightmarish amount of bureaucracy involved in getting the appliances, complete with the inevitable baffling bureaucratic holdups and corrupt scams that can’t fail to spring up when you start selling 10 bolivar bills for Bs.6.
After all, if the government is going to sell you a 42″ flatscreen TV for Bs.3,327 and that same TV goes for Bs.6,500-10,000 down the street, why wouldn’t you just turn around and re-sell it? And if you were a Misión worker living on a Bs.2,500 monthly wage and your job consisted entirely in handling out those TVs, wouldn’t you be tempted to cut out the middleman and cash in on the deal yourself?
In fact, it’s when you start getting into the numbers that you realize just how insane the Misión really is – because those same 42″ Haier flatscreens that the government sells for a low, low Bs.3,327 retail for $450 on Amazon.com.
But wait, at the official exchange rate, $450 is less than Bs.2,000!
There’s more. A 12 cu.ft. Haier fridge sells for Bs.2,628 at the Misión. At the official rate, that’s $611. But go Stateside and you can get that same fridge for $499.
In other words, the Misión’s products aren’t actually cheap at all. They seem cheap, though, but only because the rest of Venezuela’s economy is so pathologically distorted.
Those $499 gringos have to pay Amazon.com for that fridge buy close to Bs.4,150 on the parallel market, which is what the same fridge ends up costing in private shops here. The misión price is only cheap compared to the insanely inflated cost you face if you’re shut out of access to price-controlled dollars.
Really, that’s all a convoluted way of saying that the government isn’t really subsidizing the appliances, or even the credit for the appliances: what they’re subsidizing is the dollars that buy the appliances.
(Or, rather, they’re subsidizing the government’s access to the dollars that buy the yuan that denominate the swap for future oil shipments that buy the appliances – nothing is simple with these people!)
The galloping opacity of the set-up is both the point, and totally beside the point.
From the beneficiaries’ point of view, all that’s visible is that the turco coño’e’madre especulador in the shop down the street wanted to charge me Bs.4,150 for a fridge whose “fair cost” is just Bs.2,628, and the one reason I can take it home is that Chávez really cares about me.
The politics of manipulated resentment and manifactured loyalty are that straightforward.
How the opposition begins to disarm the heady-cocktail of petro-largess and emotional attachment chavismo has built through misiones like this one isn’t at all clear. The one thing I note is that from the beneficiaries’ point of view, the key shortcoming to the system is obvious: to hop onto the Misión bandwagon, you first have to jump through a neverending set of administrative hoops, hoops that make no sense to people and shut out many who feel legitimately entitled to the stuff on offer.
Promise to make access to Misión Mi Casa Bien Equipada as straightforward and hassle-free as getting a passport, and you might just get somewhere with them.