Driving down the highway, it caught my eye: a car with a fir tree lashed to the roof. Then I saw another. And another.
Real evergreens? Really. Even though one can cost $100, more than 12 times the official monthly minimum wage.
People are lining up to buy them. They’re flocking to malls for presents and pop-up shops for tinsel. Street vendors are selling hallacas, a favorite holiday conglomeration of cornmeal, beef, pork, chicken, raisins, capers and olives wrapped in banana leaves.
Christmas is back in Caracas, after a fashion. The Nicolas Maduro regime, angling to keep the wheels of what’s left of the economy turning, eased price controls and import restrictions and now stores are actually stocked with goods. Remittances from the Venezuelan diaspora – 4 million strong and growing – keep pouring in, mostly in U.S. dollars, and the government is turning a blind eye to their use.
It’s widespread, and really greasing those wheels. Caraquenos with side hustles, tutoring or sewing clothes, typically won’t take payment in anything but dollars. Ditto doctors and lawyers, and definitely retailers. So many are circulating the expert opinion is that they outnumber bolivars.
So we’re feeling flush, as far as anyone living in the midst of a humanitarian crisis can, and just in time for el Nino Jesus (he’s the one who delivers gifts, not Santa Claus). There’s a lot of pent-up consumer demand to be satisfied, and everyone just wants to be happy for a change.
Even in the slums, some houses are dressed up with greenery and lights and nativity scenes. “People are trying to have a more normal Christmas. The last two were very difficult, very dark,” said Cesar Bermudez, a 24-year-old accountant who gives soccer lessons to earn extra cash. He got into the spirit by shopping in the working-class Sabana Grande neighborhood. “I just bought two pairs of shoes and pants – I haven’t done that for years.”
At a Christmas store in the swank Las Mercedes district, sales so far this season are triple what they were a year ago, manager Ana Diaz said as she worked the register. A woman walked up clutching a fat ball of red tree lights. How much? $25. She produced it without without a flinch.
“Everyone is paying in dollars,” Diaz said.
It’s nice to know more kids will be opening gifts on Christmas morning. And it’s encouraging to see pedestrians in the most impoverished neighborhoods carrying shopping bags. There’s real joy in seeing the traditional gaita bands playing holiday folk music once again in public squares.
But for all that, we wish for the old days. I can remember when the whole city used to be done up, with lamp posts drowning in twinkling lights and supersized candy canes hanging from building facades. There were parties and pageants. The big holiday meal could break a table, with the following mandatory: sliced pork and sauce, chicken-and-green-pea salad and pan de jamon, which is bread wrapped around a mixture of ham, raisins and olives.
Even now, few Caraquenos can afford to prepare all of those dishes. Inflation may have slowed but it’s still running at an estimated annual rate of 8,900%. Hospitals are still short of medicine and staff, malnutrition still kills children, malaria and dengue are still plagues, electricity is still maddeningly unreliable, the tap water is still filthy. Maybe the harsh reality of all that is why being able to put one toy truck in your nephew’s stocking can feel like a blow-out celebration. It’s something akin to that for Larys Carbone, a 49-year-old teacher.
“Our family had lost the gifts tradition, but this year we’re recovering it,” she said. She’ll be giving her son and daughter an internet plan that costs $90 a month, an extraordinary amount but a present she can afford because she set up a small business selling olive oil.And that’s not all. After a long drought, “we’re even going to make hallacas.”
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Bloomberg’s Fabiola Zerpa contributed to this report.
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