Bolivar is dead.
Or rather, THE Bolivar is dead. Venezuela’s national currency, named again and again after the poor ingenue that felt it was a good idea to gain independence from our Spanish Masters of the time, has finally been toppled by the foreign currencies that indeed carry some purchasing power and are a safe haven for people that, intrinsically if not consciously, know that if you have one dollar or one Euro in your pocket today, tomorrow it will still be worth the same amount, not like the Bolivar, a currency of such financial volatility that it should be declared a noble gas, ethereal and always escaping into oblivion, so futile its existence is.
The story is worth telling. Up until 1982, the Original Bolivar was pegged to the US$, at a peculiar rate of Bs 4.30/$. It was a solid currency, backed by a country with a solid economy and the billions of barrels of oil upon which the republic squatted. But poor management and an Oil Monkey mentality led to an initial devaluation on February 28th, 1982, and from then on, the Bolivar became a peculiar currency, albeit not the first of its kind: it would always devalue, regardless of what the country would do. It would never regain value vis-à-vis the dollar or any European currency (the Euro not existing then) and so, when a Venezuelan got any money, it was customary to exchange it into dollars. The self-fulfilled prophecy therefore started, leading to the adoption of an Argentinean joke: “The Dollar? The Dollar is always cheap!”. The crux of the witticism was that, anything that will be worth MORE tomorrow, today is cheap. And therefore, the Bolivar always sank.
Around the mid-2000’s, the baboon in charge, Mr. Chavez, found the solution: he would slash three zeroes from the currency (as everything by then was measured in thousands and millions) and, Abracadabra!, like magic, the Bolivar became the “Bolivar Fuerte” (The Strong Bolivar). Never mind structural changes to the economy or a better rule by the government, it would be simply magic. Around the mid 2010’s, the magic trick had failed so miserably that the government decided to slash 5 zeroes from the currency, and introduce the “Bolivar Soberano” (Sovereign Bolivar). The move was particularly perfidious, as dividing by 3 or 6 zeroes is easy, but by 5 led to certain confusion. The trick again did not work, a pack of cigarettes or a coke or bubble gum reached a price measured in millions, and again the government recently slashed 6 more zeroes from the currency, decided not to call it anything new, and without much fanfare, accepted that the people in the country could use dollars, euros, pound sterling, not-so-sterling-pounds, Moroccan silver nuggets, Myanmar-ese rupees or whatever. This led to the de-facto death of the poorly named bill, and there is where we currently stand.
But in a country where the minimum wage is measured in double digits per month, if converted to the dollar, the move has been too little, too late, too cruel. What happens when the mighty dollar roams the streets is that economies reactivate, but only for those that have that currency. For example, bus rides are now pegged at a simple $1, which does not seem much until you consider that minimum wages hover around $40/month. The bus rider no longer accepts the money but it is a helper, the collector, that get the crisp bill and tucks it away, most likely next to a not too concealed firearm, needed to protect the loot from the thieves and unsavory characters that also roam the streets. Because of the difficulty to do business and the fact that thousands of industries have gone belly-up during our robbing revolution, almost everything is imported, with prices visibly marked up from other markets: the same yogurt that in Colombia costs me $5, here it sells for $18, a stark reminder that I really can live without it.
In the beginning of the revolution, Chavez warned the people against the “Savage Capitalism”, that corruption of the soul that leads to the death of the pristine republics that embrace it. But here we are, 20 some years after his ascension, facing real, savage, vandal, ruthless capitalism, courtesy of the realities of that other monster, economics. We are living in a place where, if you don’t like the price of something, you can go to another store to see that they don’t have it, and therefore you die at the hands of usury. The Bolivar, weak, strong, sovereign or enslaved, has died, and now we have an economy that is slowly waking up, but only for those that have access to the foreign metal. All others, may you rest in peace as you join our useless currency, so dead and in a grave that not even its bills are to be found flowing in the streets.