We talked about how the casinos had been banned for years by Venezuela’s self-proclaimed socialist government. The late Hugo Chávez, the founder of what he called Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, decried capitalism as a casino economy, and he derided casinos as a social ill akin to drug addiction and prostitution. Castellanos lives with her husband, Ronald, and three children, in a barrio in southwest Caracas called Macarao. Oliveros called it a spending cut that “has no historical precedent.” What it amounts to is a classic neoliberal austerity package (but more severe and with essentially no public discussion) of the kind that Maduro and his leftist cohort routinely rail against. Lupe functions as a kind of wormhole. The second stabilizing factor is that a more pragmatic government has made a kind of pact with the private sector. In a sense, the bodegones are a middle-class version of the government’s pact with the business community.
But today, under Chávez’s acolyte and successor as president, Nicolás Maduro, the whole country has become a casino, where millions are stuck in a daily, low-stakes struggle for dollar chips and a few high rollers stuff their pockets with greenbacks. Today, dollars are everywhere in the street, and bolivars are scarce. Venezuelans call this “dollarization,” and there is a double-sided irony in the shift from bolivars to Benjamins. The reason is obvious: There is no tourism, and very few Venezuelans have the extra money to blow at the blackjack table. Venezuelans are typically conscientious about wearing face masks in public, but here, other than the servers, almost no one wore a mask. He was a gambling man-perhaps he’d had a bad night-and he gave a wry laugh behind his blue paper face mask. “The one where people have dollars”-he meant bank accounts full of them-“and the one where people make $5 a month.” He was exaggerating.
Las Mercedes, with its casino, fancy restaurants (charging New York prices), and flashy cars, is at the heart of what people here call “the Bubble”: Outside, the country might be in ruins, but tonight, we party. When I entered at 2 a.m., hundreds of people were crammed into the long, narrow space-men with open shirts, gold chains, and big watches, women with low necklines showing off surgically enhanced breasts. That was followed by a period of low prices and a drop in oil production, caused largely by mismanagement of the state-controlled oil industry. Many others, who have no ties to the government, have seen their U.S. “But what are you going to do if you don’t have money to buy? The message is: Go out and spend your money and buy whatever you want; just don’t protest. Because no taxes are involved, you can buy a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black for almost half the price you would pay in New York.
I lived in Caracas from 2012 to 2016, when I was the Andes region bureau chief of The New York Times, and I returned regularly after that, until the coronavirus pandemic interrupted travel. Before the crisis, Alexandra had steady work, and she and her family lived well. The Bubble serves the small elite that has persisted through the crisis, and it is the playground for the enchufados, the plugged-in set that has grown rich from official connections, which often means by paying bribes to get inflated government contracts. Here, as the crisis grinds on, the middle class is squeezed ever thinner and the country is left with a small elite and a massive underclass. The country has fallen so far that even a small blip seems magnified-a transformation. Ten dollars doesn’t go far in the dollarized economy. And despite their novelty, the casinos-I visited three of them over several days-were far from full. Over eight years, the economy has shrunk by about 80 percent-an unprecedented collapse in a country not at war. The result, against all expectations, is a country where the dollar has become the de facto national currency. The national currency, the bolivar-named after The Liberator, Simón Bolívar, the country’s anti-imperialist founding father-was nowhere in sight.