Thu, Nov 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The wealthy in Venezuela are getting richer

By Rory Carroll  /  THE GUARDIAN , CARACAS

Another agreeable lunch ended at the Caracas Country Club with a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, the chef's famous flan and a round of espressos. From their table in the courtyard the three businessmen could hear only the fountain's gurgle, the murmur of other diners, the clink of glasses and the swish of waiters.

A socialist revolution is supposed to be clanging through Venezuela, but from this oasis of wealth in the heart of the capital it is inaudible, just like the traffic.

"The revolution is blah blah blah. We don't feel threatened," one of the trio said, a shoe factory owner.

Much of the country's elite, it seems, feel the same way.

President Hugo Chavez has warned that "capitalism will lead to the destruction of humanity," but seldom has there been a better time to make, spend and enjoy money.

The economy is surging at 9.4 percent and banks and credit card companies are reporting exponential increases in deposits and loans. Car sales are expected to more than double this year to 300,000, many of them luxury models, and property prices rival Manhattan.

The reason is oil. As the world's fifth-biggest exporter, Venezuela has thrived as the barrel price hovers around US$60.

Chavez

Unlike previous petro-booms, however, this one is supposed to be different as there is a powerful president who quotes Che Guevara and praises Cuban communism. Chavez has garnered global attention with promises to "transform the structures of capitalism."

Billions of US dollars have been spent on improving healthcare and education for the country's poor, and in the countryside a small minority of sugar plantations and ranches have been turned into socialist cooperatives.

The rich list

* High oil prices spurred growth in Venezuela to 17 percent last year and 9 percent this year -- the fastest in the region -- and unleashed a 70 percent increase in government spending.

* Sales of Scotch jumped 55 percent last year to 2.6 million boxes of imported and domestic whisky, cementing Venezuela's reputation as the biggest whisky drinker in Latin America and among the world's top 10.

* Vehicle sales are expected to double this year to 300,000, fueled by a gas price of just US$0.11 a gallon -- cheaper than mineral water.

* Banks have grown in every quarter since 2003 and have seen assets surge by a third to over US$20 billion, while billboards advertise loans for almost everything, including cosmetic surgery.

* New hotels are rising over the island resort of Margarita, a playground for the rich, and new restaurants are mushrooming across the capital.

* Property prices in Caracas have exploded, with estate agents reporting tripling and quadrupling of prices in one district since 2002. Source: THE GUARDIAN


But property rights and the structure of the economy remain intact, largely because the government does not want to impede its revenue, prompting relief from the elite and grumbles from the radical left who want greater redistribution of resources.

"If you look at what it has accomplished, it is a neoliberal government," Douglas Bravo, a former Marxist guerrilla who was once close to Chavez, said to the daily paper El Nacional.

Chavez has described his eight years in power as a transition and promised a more radical phase, inspired partly by Fidel Castro's Cuba, if he wins another term in an election next month. Polls predict a landslide.

Alberto Garrido, a historian, said there was revolutionary intent but that an Americanized consumer culture in love with baseball, McDonald's and designer labels obliged the government to tread cautiously.

Golf

A notable example is golf. In August the mayor of Caracas and presidential ally, Juan Barreto, threatened to expropriate swaths of Caracas Country Club and Valle Arriba golf club to build houses for the poor.

Three months later "Chavismo" has not conquered the fairways. Vice President Vincente Rangel scorned the idea and Chavez, not wanting to pick this fight in the run-up to an election, said not a word, leaving the mayor to fight a lonely battle against the clubs' lawyers.

Caracas Country Club went on the offensive last week by claiming the expropriation threat was based on fraudulent documents.

"We feel it will be resolved rationally, we are confident in the rule of law," club president Fernando Zozaya said.

Asked about the revolution, Zozaya was wary, not wanting to provoke the government.

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