Earlier this month, Ingrid Sanchez tried to rustle up votes here for the ruling Socialist Party in Petare, Venezuela’s largest barrio. As parliamentary elections got underway on December 6, she hired motorcycles and jeeps to ferry poor but faithful voters up steep hills to the polling station.
Sanchez has no money to spare — a former teacher, she lives on a state pension worth just one and a half dollars per month. It was the Socialist Party — the late Hugo Chavez’s party — that gave Ingrid cash to pay for the vehicles. But they weren’t Venezuelan bolivars — they were US dollars. And as she counted it, Sanchez realized that the four $20 bills she held were worth more than 50 months of her pension.
“Everything is in dollars now,” she says ruefully — a sign of monumental change in the country that she says would have Chavez turning in his grave.
Sanchez, 57 years old, is a faithful member of the Socialist Party and believes fiercely in the vision of late president Hugo Chavez, who prophesied a Marxist utopia where the state would look after the needs of the people, raise the quality of life, erase inequality and limit private enterprise to a minor role in the economy. “One never loses hope, and that is a project that I still believe in,” she said.
All of which raises a question that Sanchez has clearly been wrestling with: Is socialism still alive in Venezuela? “I don’t know, we are doing things upside down,” she says.
Giving in to the dollar
When Chavez rose to power in 1998, Venezuela’s wealth was abundant, with some analysts estimating that the country earned almost a trillion dollars from oil revenues between 1999 and 2014 — more than eight times today’s equivalent of the Marshall Plan.
With that kind of money, it was easy to imagine the state as the ultimate father figure. Chavez invested most revenues in programs aimed at increasing living standards and reducing inequality. State television would broadcast hours of footage of citizens receiving state-funded housing, food, and subsidies for agricultural cooperatives. He sent Cuban medical personnel to the barrios to set up clinics for the poor, and launched literacy and education campaigns. In December 2007, he even sent truckloads of heating fuel to low-income Americans in New York and Boston, only 15 months after calling then-President George W. Bush “the devil” at the United Nations.
Throughout his 14-year presidency, Chavez swung between different economic tendencies — though always working to strengthen the state’s command of the economy through price controls, currency exchange regulations, and public spending. He threatened to take over most private companies in Venezuela, but never abolished private property. He attacked capitalism, but never quit commercial relations with the United States
Chavez dreamed of ending the dominance of the US dollar — an emblem of the world’s biggest proponent of capitalism — and creating an alternative currency with which to buy and sell crude oil. “The world is victim of the dollar’s empire. The United States have bought half the world with useless banknotes, […] but the empire of the dollar has reached an end!” he said in 2009.
Ten years later, it’s the Venezuelan bolivar and the Bolivarian revolution that appear to be reaching an end, instead. Even his former protégé Maduro acknowledges that things have changed: Asked by CNN earlier this month whether he thought Venezuela was still a socialist country, Maduro said he thought the “values” of socialism might be fading, referring to new displays of wealth in the upmarket streets of Caracas.
“At times we moved forwards, other times we pulled back. Perhaps today we retreated for what concerns our socialist values. I recognize that,” he said at a press conference.
When oil prices began to fall in 2013, Maduro — who abruptly became president that year after Chavez suddenly died of cancer with no transition plan in place — found himself waging a losing battle against market forces, decreeing price controls on the rising prices of basic consumer goods only to find the products in question disappearing overnight, available only on the black market at a price ten times its official value. As foreign reserves dwindled, he printed stacks of new money, devaluing the bolivar to the point of scrap-paper — and therefore the salaries of most Venezuelan workers.
In more recent years, even the state’s hold on the country’s financial system has been badly shaken, with the US dollar growing commonplace in day-to-day transactions. In March 2019, Venezuela’s entire electric grid collapsed, leaving some regions without power for up to a week. Without electricity, electronic transactions including credit and debit card payments were impossible, and paying cash was futile with even the highest-denomination bolivar notes worth only pennies. So Venezuelans started using the option left: illegal foreign banknotes.
US dollars had always been seen by ordinary Venezuelans as a last resort, something most families kept hidden under the mattress for black market necessities. But during the blackouts, dollars were used to pay for ice bags to keep food in powerless refrigerators. Shops started accepting the illegal bills, at first carefully watching out for Venezuela’s feared security forces, then gradually in the open. The government did not intervene.
Once the barrier was broken, it was impossible to turn back. In Caracas, transactions of just a few dollars have now replaced local bank transfers of millions of bolivars. Products are increasingly available in Caracas for those who can pay for them in dollars or other foreign currencies, like euros, Colombian pesos or Brazilian reals.
Capitalism with Venezuelan characteristics?
The coronavirus pandemic also made it possible for Maduro himself to take a wrecking ball to one of the pillars of Venezuelan socialism — cheap oil for citizens, considered a birthright in a country so rich with crude.
Socialist governments here have always been careful with the sensitive issue of cutting gasoline subsidies. In 2014, Maduro himself declared he would not touch the price of gasoline because it would be like “adding fuel to the fire.” But with demand for gasoline greatly reduced during lockdown, he was able to do this year what no other ruler in Venezuela dared in the last three decades: Raise prices.
In May, Maduro declared the subsidized gasoline would be rationed to 30 gallons per month per vehicle, but customers could buy it at a premium of 0.5$ a liter (1.9$ per gallon) at a selected number of gas stations in the country. The result was that subsidized gasoline all but disappeared from sale, while paying for it in greenbacks became the norm for those who could afford it.
“With that, they managed to break the myth of the caracazo,” says Altero Alvarado, an oil analyst in Caracas, referring to an infamous cycle of riots against an oil price hike in 1989.
That doesn’t mean people didn’t protest. With an almost-total collapse of services, gasoline and water shortages, and frequent blackouts, there were at least 1484 protests in Venezuela in the month of October, 93% of which were related to basic necessities like access to regular utilities, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. However, these protests were quickly suppressed by security forces, allowing the government to effectively push the policy through, Alvarado says.
Another blow to the Chavez-era economic vision of state control occurred in November this year, when the government for the first time allowed a private company to issue bonds in dollars, and by doing so, raise capital outside of government control. The measure, unheard of since the early 2000s, took the form of a little-publicized authorization to a single maker of rum — Venezuela’s national drink, equally consumed in the shanty towns of Caracas and the most exclusive beach resorts on the Caribbean coast.
It is incredibly difficult to run a private company in Venezuela. The country is ranked 188 out of 190 in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking. Until now, the government decided which companies had access to foreign currencies and at what rate they would be converted to bolivars by the Central Bank. But this year, the government allowed Venezuelan rum brand Santa Teresa to raise money by issuing bonds worth a total of US $300,000.
Bonds allow investors to give a certain amount of money to the company in exchange for the promise that the money will be paid back with interest. In Santa Teresa’s case, the company turned to bonds when it realized no Venezuelan bank would have enough capital to loan what it needed to expand the distillery, due to the bolivar’s devaluation. Being able to borrow funds from private investors and pay it back in dollars would protect the company from the country’s rampant inflation.
“We are somehow beginning to come back to reality, to understand that markets have to function,” says Alberto Vollmer, Santa Teresa’s owner in an interview with CNN in Caracas. “They tried the absurd, which was to annihilate all business. It didn’t work, so now they are reversing policies,” he adds. (There’s some history here: In 2006, Chavez himself expropriated part of Santa Teresa’s lands during one of his famous TV shows “Hello President!”)
Ricardo Cusanno, president of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, points out that Venezuela is not the first planned economy to chart this path. The country could well be on its way to becoming a “tropical China” — a comparison that shows private enterprise and free markets can still be paired with intensive political control and absence of civil rights, he points out.
Since Santa Teresa’s breakthrough, he says, more foreign investors have expressed interest in doing business in Venezuela. “In the last few weeks, it has been crazy. We have been contacted by French investment funds, Latin American funds, even North American funds,” he says, with the visible excitement of someone who had not seen the same level of interest in a long time.
‘What you are seeing now is the loss of control’
To hear Maduro tell it, neither Venezuela’s crushing poverty nor its recent concessions to capitalism mean Chavez’s great socialist project has failed. Instead, he says, its progress has merely been stalled by the 2013-2015 oil price collapse — which he frequently refers to as a “war” — that left its coffers empty and its social programs running on fumes.
“Chavez never said that socialism triumphed here,” he said. “We are going to work the hardest to install a socialist way to production, and we have just begun. As we were starting to move those first steps towards a socialist economy, this brutal war came and we lost our income from oil.”
And the slow encroachment of the dollar, they say, may be more a sign of deepening chaos than of positive economic liberalization.
While Venezuelans can now use foreign currencies to buy their groceries, they cannot open a bank account in dollars, so their savings are still subject to some of the highest inflation in the world. And the more foreign cash is used in the country, the more the bolivar loses value — ultimately hurting low-income earners who are still paid in bolivars, like Ingrid Sanchez.
Luis Vicente León, one of the most respected analysts in Caracas and the manager of a polling firm, is wary of comparing this moment in Venezuela to China’s transition to open markets in the 1980s, when foreign investment was slowly allowed into specific sectors of the economy and limited special economic zones. China also maintained its own national currency while gradually reforming the economy.
“There might be a plan to do the same things Deng Xiaoping did back in China, but maybe in the future. Maybe the first steps of the Chinese reforms were similar, but I don’t think we are seeing that yet. What you are seeing now is the loss of control, from the government, of the economy and the prices,” he says.
Rafael Ramirez, a former oil minister who worked with Chavez and Maduro from 2003 to 2014, warns that unregulated change now could open the door to economic anarchy where the most powerful set the rules. “When Maduro says that he thanks God for the dollar, he is surrendering. There is no control of the economy, it’s in the hands of speculators and profiteers,” he told CNN.
Ramirez is part of the growing number of former Chavez aides who accuse Maduro of squandering the Bolivarian Revolution. From exile, he accuses Maduro of embracing crony capitalism, while the majority of Venezuelans people see no benefit from relaxed market rules.
Sanchez, the retired teacher and Socialist Party member, has lost one of her daughters to the exodus, who now lives in Chile. Her older daughter remains in Venezuela, doing odd jobs to make ends meet and helping her mother run a community radio. With salaries so undervalued, there’s little reason for her to pursue a full-time job, Sanchez says.
Their house in Caracas is humble, two rooms either side of a kitchen where the cooking pots have been emptied for a long time. In the living room, a large portrait of Chavez in military uniform proudly stands on the wall by the door welcoming every visitor with the warning, “You don’t speak badly of Chavez here.”
When she talks of the type of country she would like Venezuela to be, she says: “I believe in an active community, organized. You want to know why I haven’t left? Because I know that there are people here that are happy with what I do, and this small seed I am laying down today is what will germinate into change tomorrow.”
“Only the people save the people,” she says, quoting a famous revolutionary guerrilla slogan from the 1960s. But in today’s Venezuela, she says, “the people are f***ing the people over.”
Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump
“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.
The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.
“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”
But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.
On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.
Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.
A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.
The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.
Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.
Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.
Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.
A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.
But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.
The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.
Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.
A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.
Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.
The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.
Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout
5 min read
Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.
It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.
The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.
Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.
“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.
In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.
“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.
“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”
Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.
He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same.
“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”
Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.
The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.
But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.
Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.
Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.
Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”
The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”
The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.
“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided.
“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”
Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.
“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”
The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.
He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”
But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.
He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.
“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.
“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.
“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”
Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”
How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers
Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.
The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.
After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.
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