I’m waiting to board Aserca’s 10:20 flight to Maracaibo. I was told by several Aserca employees that it would take off from Gate 1. That is also what my boarding pass says. It’s 10:05, and there’s an Aeropostal plane sitting at my gate. There is nobody from Aserca in the vicinity.
Ah, they’re late, no surprise there. Still, I’m not in bitching mode. The airport looks fine, the bathrooms have running water – a rare occurrence, I’m told – and the cafeteria staff is remarkably nice. If you squint your eyes, it passes for a normal country, a sure sign that oil is holding steady at above $100 a barrel.
I look up at the monitors and I find my flight is announced as leaving through Gate 5A, not Gate 1. The flashing “Embarcando” sign means a frantic dash for the lower level is in order.
Gate 5A is one of those annoying portals at Maiquetía that doesn’t have a walkway attached to it. Just like our ancestors did back in the good old days of the PanAm Clipper, you have to walk on the runway to get to your flight.
In Gate 5A, I see an Aserca flunkie taking people’s boarding passes, wearing a red sweater. What is it in this country and the color red? Do they think this will make it less likely they will get taken over?
I ask him if he’s boarding the Maracaibo flight.
“Porlamar,” he growls back.
I ask him if he’s boarding Maracaibo next.
“Maracaibo is in Gate 1,” he says through his teeth.
“Yes,” I respond, “that’s what I was told, but the monitor says it’s gate 5A.”
“Don’t pay attention to the monitors,” he responds.
I bite my tongue, because screaming “what the hell are the monitors for, then?!” will get me absolutely nowhere.
Clearly, I’ve been living abroad way too long.
I keep thinking about a Mexican friend-of-a-friend who boarded an Aserca flight to Puerto Ordaz a couple of years ago. He gave the agent his boarding pass, boarded the plane, went to sleep, and landed … in Maracaibo. He had no idea where he was, and his friend ended up calling me. I had to be his tour guide for the day because, wouldn’t you know it, all the other flights back to Caracas were booked.
So in order to avoid the fate of my chilango tourist pal, I begin walking back and forth between Gates 5A and 1, waiting for some clarity.
Four round trips and half an hour later, an Aserca plane pulls up to Gate 1, a boarding agent miraculously appears, and it is announced that this is where my flight will board.
At this point, I’m kind of pissed. I feel like asking the boarding agent for an explanation, but she’s too busy collecting people’s boarding passes without even reading them – no lessons learned from the Mexican impasse – to even consider the possibility of talking to me.
I figure I can ask the stewardess when she greets me. No such luck, as the hostess is very busy twiddling in her Blackberry to even notice the passengers boarding. Those of us expecting a “Bienvenidos a bordo” are out of luck…
As it happened, there were not two, not three stewardesses assigned to this 50-minute-flight-with-no-Business-class, but five. All of them wore their best stripper makeup, and they had apparently gone to the same plastic surgeon because their chests were remarkably similar, perfect even.
Hell, they might not look like professionals, but in the event of an emergency, I bet them knockers can be used as flotation devices. Just don’t inflate inside the aircraft.
I can imagine Simeón García, the CEO of Aserca Airlines, the ringmaster of this circus, instructing his Human Resources Manager, some Nohelys Lista, “Mira Nohelys, I don’t care where you get these girls from, as long as they’re hot, you hear? Que estén bien buenas, vale. Have you seen the hotties they have over at Conviasa? Nadie quiere volar con una aeromoza incogible.”
After a pretty uneventful flight – a small miracle in an airplane that has been around since Richard Nixon was taping conversations in the Oval Office – I’ve made up my mind: in my imaginary utopia, where I rule as benign despot, Aserca disappears. Its existence, I decide, must be nothing more than a sad memory. Its employees must be fired, ridiculed, excoriated. Its owners must be laughed out of the country. Let them go to Zimbabwe, or the Maldives. Let them abuse their customers in East Timor, or in Eritrea. Let a decree be passed whereby nobody associated with this company can ever come close to flying an airplane ever again.
No half-decent country could get away with this sham of a company being one of its flagship carriers.
I’ve decided I need to open a bank account in Venezuela. I ask my sister which bank she uses, and whether or not she recommends it. She says she uses Mercantil, and that she’s happy with it. I figure that’s a good bet, since Mercantil is Venezuela’s largest, purportedly most efficient private bank.
I go to Mercantil to open a bank account. I have my cédula and my money with me, but I figure that this being Venezuela, I probably won’t be able to open my account today since they are going to ask for more papers.
Oh well, I think to myself, at least I’ll get the list of requirements and come back later.
I take a number. There are thirteen people waiting in line, all of them busy chatting, you guessed it, on their Blackberries. There are two attendants out of six booths available. There must be an epidemic keeping the other four sick in bed.
Half an hour passes. Three people get lucky. All of them have some ridiculously large, anally-composed folders with them. They approach the attendants like a serf approaches his lord.
I finally figure it out – the same girls opening bank accounts are also in charge of authorizing Cadivi dollars.
An hour passes. I bump into an old friend – this is Maracaibo after all. Another half hour passes. I bump into one of my brother’s buddies. We chat and another half hour passes. My number finally comes up.
The lady is puzzled as to why I’m the first person this morning who dares sit at her desk without a stack of papers in hand. I tell the lady I want to open an account. She doesn’t apologize for the delay, and instead asks me if I brought the letters of reference and the receipt for the electric bill.
I ask her about the letters of reference – why do you need those? After all, I’m not applying for a loan. I’m giving you my money, I tell her, and you’re going to charge me fees for keeping an eye on it – I should be the one asking you for stuff.
She says it’s standard procedure, and that I should come back next week when I have the letters of reference, which, of course, need to be accompanied by a copy of the person’s cédula.
Two and a half hours wasted on this.
Venezuela has never had an exemplary private sector. Most of Venezuela’s anemic businesses have usually been at the mercy of the petrostate and the powers that be.
Their main task has never been to make good products efficiently, nor to provide outstanding customer service. Their main task has always been to survive, by cozying up to whatever bureaucrat is overseeing them at a given time. Extract rents during a boom as quickly and efficiently as possible, transform them into dollars, and wait out the bust. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I guess the behavior of these companies shouldn’t surprise me. Everywhere you go, whether it’s Excelsior Gama or to a restaurant in Caracas, whether an airline or a bank, the story is always the same: no matter how well things go, there is always something that could be improved.
In a way, Venezuelan companies exhibit the classic behavior of a fat, lazy oligopolist. The competitive pressures that lead companies in other parts of the world to try to do things minimally competently don’t apply to them. They cannot innovate, because their mix of inputs (how much labor they can hire or fire, how much capital they are allowed to invest) is determined by the government. Their costs of production (dollars to buy inputs, bolívares to pay their workers) and the prices of their products are listed in the latest Gaceta Oficial. And their bottom lines sure don’t hinge on how they treat a low-life like you.
In the rare markets where the government doesn’t decide absolutely everything, barriers to entry are so high that a oligopoly rents are all but assured. After all, if you find yourself in a niche market without competition (e.g. Agencia Mar), who is going to compete with you? It’s not like there are thousands of investors willing to jump at the first sight of above-normal profits.
But the issue of our dysfunctional private sector is critical. Because they will be a big part of the success – or, gasp, failure – of what comes afterwards.
When Chávez leaves, the State will inevitably have to downsize as we let the private sector take over many areas. In the end, all the post-Chávez plans rely on a semi-functional private sector.
Trouble is, the private sector they’ll have to fall back on is our lazy, old, tired, corrupt, sclerotic rent-seeking mess of a private sector. Private pension funds, you ask? Why, the Banco Mercantil is first in line to take care of those. A modern, efficient transportation system is your thing? Why yes, one that is rooted in Aserca’s unsurpassed thirst for quality.
El papel lo aguanta todo…
The government’s war on capitalism has actually created a series of entrenched cartelized incumbents, whittling away their days, holding back investments that could make their companies grow and perform decently or, at any rate, better. It’s like the government is creating the worst kind of capitalist companies just to make a point – so that when the inevitable expropriations come, there’ll be as little push back as possible.
I mean, c’mon, you know things are bad when you have even a right-winger like me fantasizing about the demise of Aserca.
I understand perfectly well why it makes no economic sense for Venezuelan companies to treat me like anything other than cattle.
Still, treating your customers like cattle is not exactly conducive to creating good will for your firm. And that lack of good will means that, when the next “exprópiese” is uttered from the caudillo’s sickly mouth, the backlash will be much less than it might have been.
There will be few people left to mourn your demise.