Among the Money-Changers

I don’t like arriving in a new city early in the morning. You and the city are both still groggy, exposed; the pulse-racing anticipation of discovery is deadened by the overnight flight. It’s like agreeing to go on a first date at 6 a.m. No, I’d rather make my first landing at night, when the shimmering lights only hint at what is soon to be unveiled.

Be that as it may, Amanda and I found ourselves stumbling through immigration in the Caracas airport as the city was coming to life, greeted by the massive slogan “Construyendo el Socialismo Bolivariano” (“Building Bolivarian Socialism”). The first sign that President Hugo Chávez’s paradise is a slightly dysfunctional work in progress is the number of fixers that descend upon you as you emerge from customs, most of them wanting to change money. Venezuela has an official exchange rate, set by the government, in the neighborhood of 2,000 bolivares to the dollar, a rate that is more aspirational than real. On the street, people are eager to give you between 4,000 and 6,000 bolivares to the dollar. (Following in the footsteps of plenty of other nations that have run their currencies into the ground, on the first day of 2008 Venezuela introduced the “bolivar fuerte,” knocking three zeroes off the old currency.)

I didn’t know this at first. In today’s shrinking world, I’ve become rather cavalier about just showing up in a new place, finding an ATM, withdrawing the recommended “express withdrawal” amount, and figuring it out from there. Even in Cambodia last summer, that approach worked out well. But the ATMs at the Caracas airport didn’t work, and the black market arbitrageurs were aggressive, and I was tired. Coño, as they say here, I needed coffee.

Playing it safe, I ended up changing dollars at a bank, which used the official rate. Doing so—it’s the rate you get on your credit cards, too—makes Venezuela an extraordinarily expensive place for foreigners; quite a rip-off, in fact. But a heavily subsidized dollar rate is a convenient way for the Chávez government to reward loyal friends and to punish those who fall out of line by regulating access to the subsidized hard currency. There are also tight controls on how much currency individuals can take out of the country.

Having grown up in Mexico, I am familiar with the melodrama of exchange controls and the corrupting nature of fictional rates. Mexico had to go this route when the country went broke in the early 1980s. But it is absurd to watch a government made ever more prosperous by surging oil revenues embrace such nonsense.

The drive from the airport to the JW Marriott in the El Rosal neighborhood, a trip of less than 20 miles, took about two hours in traffic reminiscent of Bangkok’s. Caracas is a sprawling mess of a city laid out in a beautiful valley, with shantytowns and ultraposh neighborhoods competing to take over the commanding heights of surrounding hillsides.

The city’s core looks as though it sprouted up in five years—the same unfortunate five years (the end of ‘50s, beginning of the ‘60s, say) that left so many modernist eyesores scattered around U.S. college campuses. Caracas’ sprawl and dated skyscrapers were once a statement of Venezuela’s self-image as a beacon of prosperity in the region, though it’s sadly telling that despite all the country’s oil wealth, there seems to be very little interesting new construction going up. Plenty of the country’s wealth has contributed to condo building in Miami, however.

I am predisposed to like just about anywhere I travel, but I was skeptical about this place. Where to begin? Well, with María Elvira, I suppose. My first serious girlfriend hailed from Colombia, and I must have absorbed some of her family’s cross-Andean contempt for the neighborhood’s oil-rich trust-fund kid. An Ecuadorian literature teacher in high school also used to rail against the supposed crassness of Venezuela’s culture, summed up (unfairly, to be sure) by the country’s obsession with beauty pageants and cosmetic surgery. She’d joke that Venezuela was so reliant on its oil wealth, so hopelessly incapable of producing anything for itself, that it even had to import toothpicks. I can recall sitting in her classroom unable to focus on One Hundred Years of Solitude, obsessing instead over images of huge Venezuela-bound container ships weighted down by millions of toothpicks.

Then there is Venezuela’s sport heresy. For a soccer-crazed kid growing up in Mexico, a South American nation relatively indifferent to the world’s sport and obsessed with baseball was inherently suspect. (Indeed, one of the things Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro share is a passion for elimperio’s pastime—as a teenager Chávez also aspired to play pro baseball.)

On the other hand, the country can claim Amanda. She is half-Venezuelan, and she may be the brightest person I have ever known. Nothing superficial about her, and she even hates baseball. A mutual friend jokingly introduced her as “Chávez’s niece,” but when we first switched into Spanish, it was more like meeting Franco’s daughter, because she speaks with such a thick Spanish accent, the result of time spent with family on the other side of the Atlantic. Amanda still has many relatives in Venezuela, which she’d visit frequently as a kid, but she hasn’t returned in years.

Amanda approaches the world with a rare and endearing combination of mischief and empathy that makes her an ideal co-conspirator on the road. She has a keen eye, too. She once came back from two days in Mexico City to tell me all sorts of things about the city where I was born that I had never noticed. The amazing public graphic design everywhere? Yes, of course … The last place we visited together was Singapore. Actually, we bumped into each other there by happenstance. I was visiting a friend, unbeknownst to her, and she arrived in town to pick up the remains of an uncle who died there after surgery. That led to one of the more interesting, if ghoulish, cultural experiences of my life—the do-it-yourself bone-crushing ritual at the crematorium. The unpleasantness of that ordeal was almost offset by another one of those serendipitous travel-induced moments, a 1 a.m. bowling session in a crowded Singapore mall, in which I discovered that Amanda must have been a pro in a former life.

But I digress. It didn’t help Venezuela’s cause that the hotel room wasn’t ready when we arrived. When traveling, we sometimes take minor frustrations like this and ascribe blame to an entire nation. Encounter a rude waiter in Paris, and you feel free to launch into a disquisition on the French people, but encounter a rude waiter at the diner down the street from your home and, well, that guy is difficult. You don’t hold it against all of America, unless, of course, you are French.

We caught a movie in the afternoon at a mall down the street from the hotel. Postales de Leningrado, a new release by director Mariana Rondon, is about the fledgling Venezuelan Marxist guerrilla movement in the 1960s. In a bit of cinematic foreshadowing, while trudging through the jungle, one of the comandantes makes a passing comment about how the hopeless movement might make more headway if they played up Simon Bolivar rather than Marx and Engels.

Chávez was on the television when we got back in the room, chatting up a leftist Colombian legislator. Chávez had managed to make himself an intermediary between Colombia’s conservative government and its Marxist guerrillas, seeking to facilitate a release of hostages. I had been looking forward to catching Chávez’s fabled Sunday call-in TV show, Aló, Presidente, but as I would come to discover, the man is on the tube at all hours. El comandante is a frustrated talk-show host at heart, a charismatic one at that, whose TV persona manages to exude both a sense of mischief (an underrated quality in a politician) and a disarming penchant for transparency. When someone asks him about the French position on such and such an issue, he points to his foreign minister sitting in the audience and asks him to “tell us” about his recent trip to Paris, as if the two of them hadn’t yet had a chance to catch up.

Another time, I caught Chávez at a new hospital pledging to build or modernize hundreds more. He earnestly whipped out pencil and paper to make a list of all the things a great hospital needs. “Let’s see,” he told the assembled group of medical workers, “You need an X-ray unit with all the latest equipment, and what else, let’s see …” On and on he went. It makes for seductive television, a bit like watching your Uncle Fred run the country from a reality TV show.