Posted by: elsalamigrande | February 1, 2010

The Time Has Come, The Walrus Said…

… to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.

– Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass

It’s raining in Vancouver.  Headlines in the local paper are about the potential (or, rather, likelihood) that the $10 million that our federal government is spending on an Olympic pavilion will end up being wasted money with no tangible benefit. The author of an op-ed column further along the broadsheet answers letters from readers accusing him of Olympic cheerleading with some additional cheerleading. A black and white picture of a torch-lighting ceremony in Hazleton, BC has a caption identifying the torch-lighters by the color of their clothes. The print business is dead or dying. The Olympics is a crowded and misguided party that I want no part of… So I’m going to Venezuela to watch a baseball tournament.

Every year, the champions of the national baseball leagues of Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico and The Dominican Republic play a round robin tournament to determine the Caribbean Champion. This year, the tournament is being held on Isla de Margarita off the coast of Venezuela. This first post is being built aboard an Air Canada flight to Toronto, my only stop on the way to Caracas and ultimately Isla de Margarita, where I plan to watch baseball, enjoy some sun, and provide total coverage.

When the trip was booked, Venezuela was a relatively stable country. I had noticed a whole lot less news out of Venezuela since the beginning of the Obama regime. Bush’s nature made him an easy target for the rhetorical jousting that Chavez likes to engage in, and with that gone and a relatively stable energy market, there wasn’t really much headline fodder outside of baseball stories.

Then it hit the fan. Seemingly all at once, Chavez doubled the official exchange rate (more on that later), seized a foreign supermarket chain, had to begin rationing electricity and cancelled a couple of TV stations who refused to broadcast his speeches.  Needless to say, the stories out of Caracas are about large student demonstrations and riot police trying to stay on top of the whole thing with teargas.

I have no intention of becoming a political blogger. Stepping off of a plane into Caracas, speaking limited Spanish and trying to cover something as large and complicated as the political situation on the ground would be presumptuous at best – but more like arrogant, stupid and dangerous. But, to not mention it would be incomplete.

The Venezuelan Bolivar Fuerte has two prices. This official rate, set by the government, changed in January from 2VBF/USD to 4.6VBF/USD. This was done to make the official rate more competitive with the rate on the black or “parallel” market of around 6Bf/USD.  Naturally, a move like this is highly inflationary. Imported goods now cost twice as much for someone who earns their wages in VBF. It was on the heels of this move that the government seized a foreign supermarket chain. I understand that this was an attempt to keep prices down. More to come on how much stuff costs.

The currency move doesn’t come as much of a surprise. If people are getting 6:1 on the street for USD, I can’t imagine that the government would be happy settling for 2:1. If military seizures of grocery stores can keep the inflation down, one might end up riding it out. There’s inflation everywhere, why would Venezuela be any different? The real surprise, for me, is the seizure of the TV stations. It was met with no small amount of local and international outrage, and it’s hard to see it as anything other than the proverbial gasoline on a fire. Sure, the stations were likely broadcasting propaganda deemed unfavorable, but shutting them down is tantamount to validation. The stations are still operating on international cable networks, so I’d be surprised to find out that they’re not mirrored somewhere on the internet and accessible to any Venezuelan national with an uplink… and electricity.

The Venezuelan energy minister was recently fired because of a the sudden necessity to ration electricity in the country. Rations are reported to have started the day of the announcement.  This is ridiculous considering the fact that Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the western hemisphere.

So,  a trip to an exotic baseball game has the potential, now to become something a little more volatile. I don’t imagine that the tension will be present at the tournament, which is isolated from the mainland. Check back regularly. I plan to write about my trip, the tournament, and what is bound to be a unique baseball experience.


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