Is Hugo Boss?
June 15, 2009 6:46 AM   Subscribe

As an expat moving to Venezuela, what am I getting myself into? Sometimes it's difficult to slog through the volumes of negative press and propaganda about Venezuela and Chavez. (more inside)

I'll be living and working in a suburb of Caracas and making semi-frequent trips to the international airport. I'll have a furnished apartment and in part, I will be paid in Venezuelan Bolivars (fuertes). Besides my legal questions (how much of my income will be taxable -- by the US and Venezuela?), what do I need to know about living and working for our socialist neighbor to the South?
posted by namewithhe1d to Travel & Transportation around Venezuela (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I only have some atmospheric socio-politico-economic-cultural perspective for you as opposed to specifics about things like taxes and working there. I went on a sort of fact finding trip there a few years ago, meeting with government leaders, labor leaders, student leaders, media execs, journalists, opposition parties, oil execs, doctors in the missions, people in the other kinds of missions, educators, farmers, people in collectives, etc. It was a concentrated burst of information and perspective, a lot more than you'd get just touring and less in many ways than you'd get living there over time, of course.

But for whatever it's worth, you're right about the obfuscating nature of the negative press and propaganda. An interesting conundrum is that even the private press will admit that it is not trustworthy. The government issues its own propaganda/news, and so the private media outlets, owned by wealthy upper class types who feel under siege, feel they must respond in kind in order to prevent what they see as mass abuses and brainwashing. So even they will tell you that journalistic integrity has suffered, as the editor of a major paper there told my group. I was surprised to find myself kind of seeing where he was coming from, necessity warring with principle. And the rest of the world gets their info from these supposedly objective sources, obviously wanting to ignore the state-manufactured stuff like we all do with the kind of BS that comes out of places like China's state press. So the picture that comes out to us is already skewed, and was (at least under Bush/Fox News) then further distorted for their purposes. I was aware of the media fog before going, but not that aspect of it.

Given the propaganda, being a Bush-despising lefty and a still-recovering idealist, I had expected to peel back all the BS and find a righteous lefty upsurge down there where the people were finally winning and a decent and just society was being put into place, ironically on the strength of petro-clout and petro-cash. I mean if Bush hated him and saw him as a threat, he had to be golden, right? The reality, as I guess I more realistically should have predicted, was that life is as complicated and nuanced and messy there as anywhere. Nobody's hat is completely black or white. Chavez has done some great things and some worrying things. He's done some wonderfully progressive things to really empower and enlighten and care for the mass of people, laying the groundwork for a society that allows many more people to live better lives (assuming the oil holds out long enough), and he's done lots of things to circumvent what anybody would call transparent democracy, ostensibly in service of nobler goals, but we've heard that line a lot throughout history. He's difficult to understand because he seems to be both a brave visionary in terms of the social policies he has the balls to actually implement, and a childlike, simplistic, parochial bully in terms of the way he conducts himself and some of the actions he takes. I still haven't resolved those things and so he remains sort of unpredictable for me. I look at the good things happening and think that they are great, yet remain wary about him, not knowing what unexpected overstep he might make next, or whether his flaws suggest that his larger plans won't ultimately go well.

He has been almost deified by much of the lower class segments. In many of their homes, it is not unusual to see a picture of Che Guevara and then one of Chavez right next to it with sayings like "Aqui in esta casa no se habla mal de Chavez". Many of them see him as a hero and savior. When you speak with people in a collective who were able to start a sustainable business using government loans, education, training, and contracts, and listen to the pride in their voices about turning their lives around when they never thought they'd be able to, taking care of their health, getting some education, taking care of their families, etc., and listen to the pain when they talk about their lives before then, you understand their devotion. Critics, on the other hand, just criticize that as populism, as handing out cash, so of course people will be devoted to you. And it's not just money, but medical care, education, and other forms of betterment that so many Venezuelans would not otherwise have had.

Much of the upper class doesn't like it, of course, and though I haven't kept up much in the past couple of years, I've heard of some additional resistance in other segments of society. I worked with a guy here who was from a prosperous upper class family there. He tells a very different story from the people I met with in the barrios. He talks about a brain drain, wherein a lot of the brains and talent up and left in order to stay afloat and carve out a better life elsewhere. He talks about the abuses of power and the suspension of fairness and democracy and the undermining of business. He speaks of societal-level theft, kind of like the reverse of the theft you see in other developing places where the elites and foreign powers loot a nation. So be ready for anything, I suppose, but most especially very strongly polarized opinions. If you find yourself in a group of people all saying the same thing, get out and try to see from someone else's eyes so you can get some broader perspective.

In terms of practical matters, expect some corruption. Cops, officials, etc. Much of that hasn't changed, though in many cases Chavez has created parallel bodies to try to get around institutionalized corruption. I don't have much info on how well it has worked. You'll have read of the many nationalizations and strongarming of corporations of course. I don't know how that affects whatever kind of company you'll be working for, but it would be good to look at patterns there and see if you think your company might be in a risk zone.

A news/analysis site you might find useful is It's run by American ex-pats and is pretty cogent. Compared to anything else you've seen, it will likely appear leftward-slanted. Maybe it is. It's got more firsthand info than you might otherwise find, however, so filter as needed. My group met with the main guy there, Greg Wilpert, and he was not just some Chavez parrot. He disabused some of my liberal illusions about the place right alongside the conservative ones.
posted by kookoobirdz at 8:47 AM on June 15, 2009 [6 favorites]

Well, I can only share my experience with living and working in Ecuador...

As someone who traveled to S. America a lot, and to Ecuador many times, I was still unprepared for how difficult it would end up being to actually live in a 3rd world country for an extended period of time. There are just so many things that are easier for those of us living in the US that we take for granted.

Some comments that probably apply to you in Venezuela due to it's similarity/proximity to Ecuador and my limited knowledge of Venezuela:

-- Be prepared for decent food to be quite expensive. Anything American and/or non-local will be surprisingly expensive considering what the average person there makes. You will likely pay US prices or higher for eating out in decent restaurants.

-- Be aware that what the 'official' exchange rate and what you get on the street are very different. There is a black market for dollars at a more favorable rate if you are the one selling dollars. So, if your employer is telling you that you'll earn the US equivalent of XXX.XX dollars, he is probably overstating your income.

-- Generally, if you do have to pay taxes in a foreign country, that amount can be deducted from you taxes here in the US.
posted by eas98 at 8:51 AM on June 15, 2009

kookoobirdz already gave a great answer, but I'll try to add a few things here and there. I lived in Caracas in the 1980's as a teenager and have returned a half dozen times since. So I have a sense of how things once were and how some of them have changed. Like kookoobirdz, I'm a Bush-hating lefty, and I find Chavez really troubling. The last time I was there was during the runup to congressional elections, and all the candidates that had posters up were posing with Chavez in their ads. There were also a lot of "Dear Leader"-esque banners praising Chavez for his leadership. I saw very few posters for opposition candidates, and the few that I did see were defaced. That was a stark contrast to the 80's, when there were 2 large parties that campaigned pretty vigorously (even if admittedly only catering to the interests of the elites.)

As a foreign resident of Venezuela you will be issued a Cédula de Identidad. When I lived in Caracas I was occasionally asked for it to prove my age (i.e., nightclubs and R rated movies and so forth.) The last time I returned, I was astonished to learn that with every sales transaction that takes place, the government now records your cédula number. Whether you are buying groceries or books or whatever, the government has a record of every penny you spend and how you spend it. Ostensibly this is to crack down on tax cheats, but I found this incredibly creepy and Orwellian.

The other thing that kookoobirdz didn't really go into about Chavez, that I found troubling, was the anti-immigrant rhetoric that he uses. There was a lot of "Venezuela for the Venezuelans!" To understand this, the background is that there was an enormous influx of immigration from southern Europe in the 1950's- from Spain, Portugal and Italy. When I was living there an enormous percentage of the population of Caracas had been born outside the country. And they did the traditional immigrant thing, working very hard, starting small businesses, educating their kids. Some of the rhetoric Chavez uses exploits resentments around that wave of immigrants, and a lot of small business owners are fearful of having their assets seized by the government. So their children are turning around and fleeing back to Europe- this is much of the "brain drain" that kookoobirdz referenced above.

All in all, though, I loved Venezuela. The people are lovely, the food is tasty, the weather is fabulous. Gasoline is cheap, food is expensive. Food will likely be a larger part of your budget than you would expect. There are specific tax rules for expats. I'm not an expert on those, but I understand that a certain amount of income is exempt from US taxes. The IRS website can provide more precise information.
posted by ambrosia at 10:00 AM on June 15, 2009

I worked with a guy here who was from a prosperous upper class family there

My 1975 People's Almanac states that 3% of the population owned 90% of the land.

You're not going to understand the root sociopolitical dynamics of the country without exploring the implications of that historical injustice. Not that that understanding would be sufficient, just necessary.
posted by @troy at 11:04 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, tasty food! The best meal I had there was the national dish, pabellon criollo. Barbecued beef, black beans, and rice. Mine was augmented variably with salty cheese, fried plantains, fried egg, avocado, and we had some kind of lemony sweet tea made from herbs. Simple yet wonderful. Arepas can be fun and tasty too. Lots of other good stuff domestic and foreign.

@troy's definitely right about the importance of history and class division there stemming back to colonial times. That's sort of what a lot of this is about, at least in theory, undoing colonialism and its descendant isms. Land reclamation and redistribution has been one of the controversial issues there but I suppose hasn't gotten as much press in recent years. You can google for "landless peasant" or "movimiento sin tierra" or "campesino + land" or things like that for more info on just the land ownership aspect, both for and against. And more broadly than just land, nobody wants to lose what they've always had and feel is naturally theirs and nobody wants to be denied what they've never had and feel is naturally theirs, so there's a nice conflict of perspectives for you.

Some other reading topics for you might be Simon Bolivar, Bolivarian revolution, "21st century socialism" etc.
posted by kookoobirdz at 12:21 PM on June 15, 2009

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