The situation in Venezuela is grim and not getting any better.
A socialist government has destroyed what used to be one of the healthiest economies in the world and turned it into something for which few were prepared. As we get ready for the holidays here in America, with our usual spending frenzies and feasts, Christmas in Venezuela is looking a lot different than it did a mere decade ago. Maybe some of the young people who think socialism is the answer to all our societal woes will read this and realize that this form of government doesn’t work – it destroys all hope.
Last week, I got an email from a prepper named J.G. Martinez D, or Jose. He offered to send me some on-the-ground articles for as long as the internet is up and running. I thought, given the season, that it would be interesting to follow up the interview with Selco regarding his SHTF Christmas with an interview about Christmas in Venezuela. Jose is one of the few people in Venezuela who was a prepper before this collapse happened so his perspective is quite valuable.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am an upper middle class, professional former worker of the oil state company, in my 40s. A Bachelor’s degree from one of the best national Universities. I have a small 4 members family, plus two cats and a dog. An old but in good shape SUV, a good 150 square meters house in a nice neighborhood, in a small but (formerly) prosperous city with two middle size malls. Everything in the period 2004-2012 was just fine. After that period, the economy started a declining trend that has been increasing faster each week.
Being a prepper, and having experienced two major similar crisis in my lifetime (civil turmoil 1989, and Caracas coup d’état in 1992), inspired me to find a second (and even a third) income source and some months’ worth of food at home. I started to write for a Forex blog, and earning some extra cash for preppings: a genset, (now used twice weekly because of the power cuts) additional freezers, a CNC machine for a home-based small business, and some professional audio equipment for voice over and podcast broadcasting, another economical activity that I enjoy, after my career in the oil company stopped. A water tank with a concrete base (the power cuts stop the water supply pumping system), and reinforced bars for the windows, enclosing the patio for security, and some other improvements.
This has allowed my family to deal with most of the terrible situation in Venezuela. I am now outside the country, planning for the exile of my family. I know things are going to get a lot worse before they start to get better, and don´t want them there once the shooting begins.
Tell me a little bit about the traditions in Venezuela. What was Christmas like before the economic collapse?
Christmas in Venezuela was one of the most popular times of the year, after school holidays. A lot of people, mostly in the big cities, went to the beach to enjoy those free days. Venezuelans are very family-oriented people. For us, Christmas is a season for being with family even in the entire year we have not been able to visit them. There was an exodus from one side of the country to the other one, people traveling in all directions to gather with their beloved ones, mainly from the big cities to the province states.
Since December 1st, shops, coffees, restaurants, houses, entire subdivisions and streets, government offices, schools, and all kind of business were decorated and the traditional “Nacimientos” or representations of baby Jesus birth in the crib, with Saint Joseph, virgin Maria, and the three wizard kings. There were contests with the most elaborated Nacimiento would be the winner. And the traditional living Nacimiento.
The general environment was a happy one, one of hope and confidence in the future. One of our Christmas carols, called “gaita” totally unrelated to the western anglophone ones, are played with drums and all kind of instruments, and for the untrained ears, it could sound something like merengue. It has been a totally pleasant surprise for the foreigners to come to a church for the services and find people dancing and singing traditional songs. Lights and all kind of ornaments hanged from doors, walls, windows and every imaginable place.
Malls were full with people buying all kind of presents, and temporary employment was a permanent need for the merchants since the first day of December. All kind of toys and kid’s articles were sold even in the streets, for the baby Jesus birth night.
Many people piled up their mattresses, pots, and pans in the family car, heading for wonderful vacation destinations like Isla Margarita, with lots of beautiful beaches, or the mountains in Merida, in Los Andes. Another tradition is buying new clothing and or shoes (“estrenos”) for the 24, 25, and 31 December evening, to dress up in dinner while the children played with their new toys, and receiving the new year with the best new clothing to ask for prosperity.
How have the traditions you described above changed now that there is very little money?
Without money, and cash scarcity, traveling is very hard. Many people have restricted their family gatherings. Prices of bus tickets are very high for the common person, and airplane tickets are a joke. 75% of the national flights fleet is on hold because of lack of maintenance.
I have not known of anyone with kids in the last 4 years that could buy a new attire for themselves to use on the 24 and 31 December nights. Most of the available money is for 24/31 December dinner, or kid’s toys, if any.
Many kids these years have received a very simple toy, instead of those most expensive and fancy ones. And many others have not been able to receive any toy at all. They have seen people looking inside the garbage bags for food, and despite their age they seem to understand what is happening and don’t ask for expensive toys to baby Jesus, leaving the parents to relieve some pressure and get them whatever they can.
However, the hard part is that many kids were used to going to visit their grandparents, and nowadays this kind of family trips are just not possible. There is no cash, collapsed transportation, no parts for the family cars. You get the picture.
What was your traditional Christmas dinner before?
Our family Christmas dinner includes roasted pork leg, with olives and capers; a special loaf of bread (“pan de jamon”) with lots of olives, ham, bacon, and capers inside, and hen salad, with potatoes, carrots, mayonnaise, petit pois, the very unique and traditional “Hallaca”. This is sort of an envelope with banana leaves, filled up with a tasty mixture: beef and pork stew, olives, boiled eggs (recipe varies with the region, East, Center, West, and/or the origin of the family), surrounded by a mass elaborated with the corn flour, the same we use for the arepas. It was common to cook about 150 or 200 hallacas for a 4-person family.
For bigger families, everyone collaborated with money and the hallacas-making was a team labor, with over 10 people or more, and the result was 1200 or 1500 hallacas. A family of four, like us, with 100 hallacas, a roasted leg, and a huge bowl of hen salad in our extra freezer, we would eat hallacas and Christmas food until middle January!
Normally, since my childhood, in our table on Christmas Eve, there were grapes, apples, dried fruits, raisins, nuts, and even hazelnuts. Most of these were imported (we only grow grapes in some places), but there were plenty of all this in the middle class tables the Christmas and New Year eve. For dessert, a sweet called “dulce de lechoza”, made with slices of green papaya, boiled with lots of sugar and clove, served with a slice of Christmas cake, a cake with raisins, chocolate, dried fruits and some rum, called “Torta negra” or Black Cake. There is a very traditional punch, mainly for ladies, called “Ponche Crema”, with a secret recipe invented 140 years ago by Eliodoro Gonzalez, a chemist from Caracas.
Of course, most of the people could afford a whisky bottle. Most of the time we had some cider for the New Years Eve toast to receive the incoming year; people who could afford it bought champagne.
Before, it was common for someone who was shopping or just passing by, to go to wish a merry Christmas to a friend and receive a plastic bag with 6 or 8 hallacas “so you can taste them”, and some “Dulce de lechoza” or Torta Negra.
What are families eating for Christmas dinner now?
Nowadays, families are mostly eating beans and lentils, whenever they can be found, and white rice, sometimes hard to find. Middle class made an extra effort for at least one hallaca for each member of the family at the Christmas dinner eve, and mostly bought to people who makes a temporary business by preparing, cooking and selling hallacas. Those who can afford to make hallacas at home are not too many, and people does not give away hallacas to friends and family so often. The most easy meal for Christmas dinner seems to be just the hen salad. There are no wheat flour at fair prices for ham bread or cake, nor olives or other ingredients at affordable prices. Instead of a complete pork leg, some people just buy (if they can find it)some pork meat and roast it in the oven, just for Christmas Eve.
Fortunately last year we had bought a lot of staples for hallacas and other things for the dinner in August, like a small frozen pork leg and flour, and we were able to deal not just the high prices, but the scarcity as well. Our Christmas dinner was a very normal one, a little bit sad, as you may suppose. A lot of neighbors have left the country, and their houses were empty and silent. The subdivision main street once filled with kids in bicycles, dogs and people with babies, now looks like a ghost town.
What kind of gifts are people giving this year? How are they acquiring them?
Pricing of the toys, after 18 years of currency control exchange, makes them extremely hard to afford. Families with many children just don’t buy toys, or new clothing. All the money goes for feeding needs, if some staples can be found somewhere.
Old toys, in good shape, are sold in garage sales, mainly from struggling middle class people, but that was the last two years…because the middle class is running away from the country. People who can’t afford to buy new toys just trade work hours, or buy used cheaper toys. With a pair of shoes costing several minimum wages, many people is not buying anything else but basic staples. Other people who really wants to give something are using as gifts previously used items. There is not enough money in people’s hands.
Prepping allowed us to get the toys for our child early, in September, so we are not with the last minute rush.
How are children dealing with the changes during the holiday season? Is it easier or more difficult for them than the adults?
Many children are pretty aware of the situation. Middle class kids have noticed the people roaming in the streets and ripping the garbage bags looking for something to eat, and asking for bread, money or something outside bakeries, malls and supermarkets.
They have come to understand, the hard way, that everyone is having a rough time, and they are lucky to have a good house, that their relatives (mostly) still have a car they can use (many of middle class families cars are awaiting for non-affordable spare parts like tires, batteries or others).
This said, children know that anything Baby Jesus or Santa could bring along is a plus. It is touching to read that in their letters, they have asked for toys as well for the poor children. They see their parent’s faces arriving at home with a couple of grocery bags, and hear the adults conversations about the crisis. It is has been very hard for many of them. I have known by mouth of a psychologist friend of us that his little patients (he works mainly with children) are having nightmares and night terrors associated to what they see on the streets. Everyone is having a hard time.
What are some of the creative solutions that people are coming up with to make the holidays special?
People are trying to deal with the situation by means of making clear to the kids that what is important is being healthy, and that the family is all together, for instance. But the most needy are having a harsh time.
Some people has risen chickens for Christmas dinner, in whatever space they had available, but with the danger to be robbed. Other people puts together whatever cash they can find, scarce as well, and buy in bakeries all the ham bread and other stuff, to resell in the streets.
They generate scarcity in the bakeries, and inflate the prices to awesome levels. I have known that in coastal towns like those all around Margarita Island, they are using fish in the Hallacas, instead of beef and pork, for example. And instead of hen salad, sardines salad. My wife is using some sugar substitutes, as a traditional cane juice.
Are politics/government affecting the holidays in any way? Are they providing any type of relief or treats for families? Are they offering any suggestions to make this time of year more special?
Sure, they are trying to wash their nasty face with handouts. The relief, or treats was a Christmas bonus for those holding that carnet imposed by the Government to their supposed followers, and it was not even for all of the carnet holders neither.
They openly offered pork legs, toys and other goodies at low prices for those who vote for the Socialist Party. Of course this was all lies. The goodies are for the NGs, for the riot police, and the military who suffocated the recent demonstrations with over 130 persons killed.
Do you have any stories you could share of post-collapse Christmas in Venezuela?
The worst of the collapse has not been seen yet. But it is quite remarkable to notice that in other countries, the rush for electronic appliances sales generate turmoil in the stores, meanwhile in Venezuela it is the access to basic staples.
My wife was casually in a small supermarket a few days ago, when unexpectedly a couple of employees started nervously to stack powdered milk in the shelves. This is one of the most precious staples in Venezuela, much more than the liquid milk, for reasons known only to Venezuelans, and that I myself can´t explain despite being a Venezuelan. Maybe the low price, and that it can be stashed for a long time.
So there were some soldiers custodying the supermarket, and ask the people to make a line. Suddenly, a large amount of people invaded the supermarket, and pushed aside the two employees, who fell to the ground under the avalanche of people. My wife took the kid to her side, just on time so the horde would not push him and knock him to the ground and step on him. My wife, terrified with that scene, once she was able to move around to get if she could get a package, stood next to a soldier. My kid look at the soldier and, innocently asked with his little voice if he could get him some milk for his cereal. The soldier look down on the kid, and just patted his little head, with a knot in his throat, looking at my wife with a sense of impotence.
Would you be prepared?
The stories of Christmas in Venezuela should be eye-opening to anyone who is trying to get prepared for a long-term event.
The way that life has changed there is stark, dramatic, and something that could happen in any country in which the government turns to socialism. Would you be prepared for life in a collapse situation? Would you be able to provide special things for those you love to make the holidays a little bit happier?