My buddy Diógenes is sitting across a miniature sized table from me. We are sipping (what I think is) coffee in a noisy Maracaibo panadería. The buzz from the air conditioner is so loud we’re forced to practically scream – I still think that’s the reason why caraqueños say maracuchos are so loud.
Diógenes is telling me about his life as a cattle farmer in Bolivarian Venezuela. We are not being terribly quiet, which makes me kind of nervous, but the cashier is distracted with her Blackberry. She couldn’t care less – she’s probably heard it all before.
“In Japan…and Luxembourg…y en las mollejas aquellas,” he continues, “when the interest rates go up by one percent, people jump out of buildings and plunge knives into their stomachs. Here…? When you consider las vergas we have to deal with here, and how we are able to adapt and go with it…I’m telling you man, if you run a business in Venezuela, you can run it anywhere.”
I ask him what the main obstacle to his business is.
He doesn’t hesitate: “it has to be the permits to be able to take each animal to the slaughterhouse.”
Wait, I ask him, each animal needs a permit?!
“Yeah. The government instituted this policy that every head of cattle that goes to the slaughterhouse has to have paperwork by which the government approves it for human consumption. They say it’s because they want to eliminate foot-and-mouth disease … which is difficult to do if the government is constantly importing live cattle from Brazil or Nicaragua, places where the disease is rife.”
It’s a classic case of undoing with your feet what you’re trying to do with your hands.
“The permit has three parts. The trickiest part is the vaccine – the government has to make sure all your cattle has been properly vaccinated, and any animal taken to the slaughterhouse has to have that paper. The problem is that the government is the only one who can import the vaccine, and it’s been unavailable for months!”
“So, wait,” I ask him. “You’re telling me you haven’t killed a cow in months?!”
“Yeah right,” he smirks at me. “As if I’m gonna pay attention to the government. We’ve been pleading with them to give us the permits or give us the vaccines. What do you want, I tell them … for people to now have meat in the markets at all? You know what’s happening with chicken. Do they want people to simply have no protein at all?”
“At one point,” Diógenes says, “I simply said ‘screw it’ and headed to the slaughterhouse with no permits. In my pocket I had 500 BsF for the Guardia Nacional, 500 BsF for the guy in the slaughter house, and an extra 500 BsFs, just in case. It’s either that … or no business at all.”
I tell him that’s mighty dangerous. He tells me it’s the only way to do business and sell meat.
He goes on talking … about how the informal markets are the only places where he can make a buck, about how they are controlled by the military, about how official prices have been frozen for years, about how individual meat sellers know how to get around the controls, and about the multiple shakedowns he faces all along the chain of production. The details are new to me, yet it all sounds so very familiar at the same time.
“Take a step back,” I ask him. “Why put yourself through it?”
Diógenes is clearly conflicted about what the regime has done to him. I’ve known him since we were kids, and he’s a principled, honest man. His family has owned the farm outside La Villa del Rosario for generations.
“Well, I’ve bought myself an insurance policy, thanks to Chávez.”
I ask him about that. Insurance against chavismo? Maybe I need some of that.
“No, no, it’s not the type of insurance you’re thinking of.”
“A few months ago, I got a call from the bank,” he says. “Because my family has owned the farm for years, our papers are clean, so we’re in less danger of being expropriated than other farms. The government is forcing banks to provide loans for agriculture, and with the uncertainty in the market, banks are having a hard time coming up with people to lend to. The guy from the bank even offered me money to give me the loan.”
“I took out a huge loan on the farm, and quickly changed it in the black market. Sure, I used some of the money and invested … the minimum. The rest? It’s overseas. That way, if Maduro o un revergo de esos comes to expropriate me, they can take the farm. El peo es entre el gobierno y los bancos – it becomes a problem between the government and the banks.”
That would be rough, I tell him. Maracaibo is rife with stories of farmers who have gone to places like Panama and Costa Rica, only to find farming there a completely different ballgame. Many do not succeed.
“I know,” he tells me. “If I have to leave, I’m done with farming. I’ll use the money and open some sort of business. Thankfully, my wife had our babies in the US, so they’re Americans. And if what we think will happen ends up happening, well … I’ll just have to start over. Forget the whole thing.”
He reminds me of his car, the one we rode here in. It was broken into a few days ago, with the burglars taking the entire dashboard, the headrests, and the airbags … all in the space of ten minutes.
“The things that are happening are beyond comprehension. It’s my kids’ future … that’s the only thing I care about. The farm? The future? It might as well be gone.”
He looks down at his coffee, thinking of his father, who died much too soon of a heart attack, of all the hours he spent making the farm what it used to be, what it once promised to be. Dreams that, someday soon, may well be dashed.