If we are to go by the outlandish stories one hears, then whatever you might have thought about corruption a few years ago is now peanuts.
One of the more amusing stories I heard had to do with Pudreval.
As you may recall, a few years ago, the press got a hold of the story that several containers full of food had been allowed to rot in the yards of our country’s ports. Of course, nothing came out of it, but the stench of Pudreval was hard to quell. (The name comes from the fact that some containers were apparently imports by PDVAL, the PDVSA affiliate in charge of distributing food … don’t ask).
I hadn’t given much thought to the Pudreval story until a buddy explained to me the dynamics of Pudreval.
Say you are a chavista bigwig in charge of PDVAL’s purchases abroad. You are allocated enough dollars at the preferential rate of BsF 6.3 to import ten containers worth of food.
The first container arrives in the port. You call the National Guard and all the other people who have to certify your shipment, i.e., charge a bribe. You pay them off, get your paperwork, and you’re done.
Next up, a crane comes and moves the container from one side of the yard … to the other.
You call the same people once more – National Guard, customs, etc., – and you tell them “épale, my second container of food is here.” You pay everyone off, get your paperwork, and they leave.
The crane comes and … you guess it … moves the container to another part of the yards. You call them again. “Compadre, the third container is here …” Bribe, bribe, bribe. Stamp, stamp, stamp. And then you call the crane again.
Magically, a single container of food has become ten containers! When does the process end? Why, when the stuff inside the container begins to stink. That’s when you just leave the stuff in a corner of the yard, and hope nobody notices.
Stories like that are dime-a-dozen in Venezuela. For example, some Caracas supermarkets have been known to sell you bundles of things you want … with things you don’t. Some friends have been forced to buy their shampoo (when they find it) bundled together with deodorant they don’t want. Turns out the deodorant is a stinky, abrasive brand that nobody in their right mind would want to buy, but they were imported by an enchufado with a connection to China, and the supermarket has to get rid of them somehow!
Another story involves a crime ring that kidnaps your university degree after you have had it legalized at the Foreign Ministry’s office in downtown Caracas. As in … you’ve finally gotten the darn thing stamped and signed, and you’re walking out with your tubo, and a couple of guys in a motorcycle come and kidnap your degree and hold it for ransom.
I heard stories of military men offering brand new cars to school admissions officers in order to obtain a hard-to-find spot for one of their kin in one of Caracas’ elite schools. I heard stories of Embassies being forced to pay bribes to men in uniform to get Embassy cars out of the nation’s ports, where they are being held up due to some “procedural” issue. And let’s not even go into the “express kidnapping” issue – apparently, there are restaurants in Venezuela’s main cities that are open all night and always have a wad of cash. If you get kidnapped, you can go there, cash a check, get the cash, and pay your ransom.
It’s easy to lose hope when hearing all of these stories, but one thing I kept coming back to was the fact that corruption feeds on wealth, and wealth is not as easy to find in Venezuela these days. Because, if you think about it, with the price of oil at a third of what it was a few months ago, someone in this gang of bucaneers is having a hard time making ends meet. There simply isn’t enough oil wealth to go around satisfying everyone’s basic needs.
Whether it’s the Pudreval guys or the people holding degrees for ransom, there simply isn’t enough wealth to sustain a country of thugs. Yes, there are bolívares, and there’s more of those every second … but wealth? Not quite as much.
And when thugs don’t find enough loot … well, bullets will probably start to fly.