Robert: Lo que no mata engorda

May 25, 2010

“Our standard of living is a matter of functioning and capabilities, not a matter of utilities, commodies, or opulance”
– Amartya Sen, The Tanner Lectures

I have been in Mérida for five days and one of the things that stands out most to me is the shortage of the basics. Some of these shortages are chronic, others are periodic, but all are annoying.

Rest has been one of the most limited resources of late.  As a matter of the demands of the VENUSA program, my class schedule, and thrill-seeking behavior, every day last week I woke before 7 a.m., came home after 8pm and twice stayed out past 1 a.m.. My classes go from 8:30-5:45 p.m. Monday–Thursday. Afterward, there are typically events with the language exchange program “Nuevos Encuentros.” After that, many people were excited to go drinking and dancing. There are about a half-dozen well known “discotecas” or bars that Venezuelans and foreigners travel between by taxi, dancing at each one until the early morning. The shortage of rest broke yesterday when I decided not to go on a trip to the hot springs with most of the US students.

Another shortage that ended shortly after I decided not to go to the hot springs was the shortage of contact with my family. Venezuela has a great system of call centers that are very affordable but they are not, as far as I know, typically open before 8 a.m. or after 8p.m. On Saturday I talked for over an hour for 28 Bolivares, which is the equivalent of about $7 at the official exchange rate.

Incidentally, Venezuela has the highest rate of per capita cell phone ownership in Latin America. I also took the opportunity on Saturday to buy an inexpensive Samsung cell phone with a Movistar plan.

The shortage of clean clothes also ended yesterday. My host mother agreed to take my bag of clothes to the laundry, and I went two days later and picked them up wearing the only (dirty) clothes I had. On the trip from Miami on Monday many other students commented how lightly I packed. Indeed, I packed 27 kg of luggage and only half of it was clothing. I will be here for 12 weeks and I hope to buy least a few shirts, pants, and other articles.

On a more serious note, space is still limited on the TROLMERIDA during the morning commute. To correct an inaccurate observation I made in my last post, riders are not allowed to hang out of the trolly. That only happens on the busetas, which are busses privately owned and operated.

The idea of jamming into a bus became serious for me on Wednesday when I was inches away when an elderly woman who was squeezed between some seats and the door as it opened. She moved too slowly and there was no place for her to go on the trolly so her torso and purse were trapped and she was slowly squeezed for about 10 seconds until she slipped out. Afterward, many people on the bus were talking about how unsafe the trolly is and how no one follows the rule to let older people sit in the special seating. I don’t know how serious being squeezed was for her but it looked painful. In any case, it was dangerous and unnecessary.

Another significant shortage is that of electricity. Beginning several months ago, the main source of electricity for the region, the Guri Dam, has experienced severely low water levels due to a prolonged drought. For months on end, Mérida had days-long power outages. My host mother told me yesterday that when the last group of US students arrived in Mérida the city was in complete darkness. My first experience with the electricity shortage was on Thursday morning during class. The lights in the salon went out for about 15 minutes. I thought the light had burned out but my teacher didn’t seem surprised and just opened the windows. Later that day I saw the outage was city-wide and caused a lot of traffic in the city center. During the news, I saw President Hugo Chavez guarantee that no more outages would occur during peak hours or on weekends. Saturday night the electricity went out until about 10 a.m. on Sunday. My host mother pointed out the contradiction and explained that the power outages are also caused because the state oil company is not producing enough gasoline to power the new backup generators that were installed just outside the city.

The politics of shortage in Venezuela are heated. As I understand it, Chavez the nationalization of private factories (empresas privadas) because they are in the hands of greedy capitalists that are breaking the law and hurting the poor by not producing the recommended amount of goods (they are producing too little) at the recommended prices (the prices are too high).

Opponents, as I understand, say that Chavez only nationalized the factories so he can put them out of business so that no one in the country is rich except him and he can have complete power.

I remember in 2008 the company Los Andes was taken over by the government because it was not producing enough. In protest, the company said that the price quotas made it uneconomical to produce more milk so there were shortages.

In any case, I understand that a number of factories are closed or the workers sit without work. In some cases, the state imports processed raw materials like ore or grain that the country should have the capability to produce itself.

The milk lines, power outages, and work stoppages are events I have almost no experience with in Venezuela. Incidentally, in 2008, I jokingly wrote in my notebook that there were chronic shortages of the following**:

  • fresh laundry
  • towels
  • fresh water
  • toilet paper
  • matches
  • fresh fruit
  • yeast
  • vocabulary
  • liquid soap
  • spoons
  • baking soda
  • proper grammer

**At the time, my host family explained that the shortage of baking soda and yeast was because the government had prevented it from being imported and there was no factory inside the country. Toilet paper I count among the industries that were nationalized. Fresh water and fruit are in constant shortage for foreigners (extranjeros) for the danger of getting sick when they are not properly cleaned and prepared.

Okay, new goal for the next few weeks: learn about the experience and politics of food shortage. The idea of food shortage plays out in the world politics of organic food. At the University of Minnesota, skeptics ask “how can we meet the world’s future needs for food, fiber, and fuel?” Researchers like Jon Foley have calculated that organic agriculture is not productive enough to produce enough food without putting more undisturbed land under production.

I think a great opportunity will be next weekend when I hope to travel to some organic and conventional farms (agricultores organicas y convencionales) in the nearby city of Tabay. In Venezuela, national self-sufficiency has been a problem for decades, as the typical farmer is very old and the total number gets smaller every year. The majority of food and farm labor have to be brought in from Columbia or other South American countries. In Venezuela, it seems that before conversations about organic vs. conventional can begin, there are many questions of production to resolve.

Until I learn more! Keep in touch!

One comment

  1. very interesting perspective

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