Venezuela's Cup Runs Over, and the Scotch Whiskey Flows

Por Venezuela Real - 6 de Octubre, 2006, 16:50, Categoría: Corrupción

New York Times
August 20, 2006

GOOD TIMES Oil revenues are allowing more Venezuelans to indulge a taste for imported whiskey, much to the disapproval of President Hugo Chávez

NEW Porsches and Range Rovers crowd the streets here. Rents for a three-bedroom apartment in leafy districts like Altamira and Los Palos Grandes have doubled since January to $6,000 a month. But what most vividly illustrates Venezuela's latest oil boom may be its Scotch whiskey sales, which are soaring.

Diageo, the British company that markets Johnnie Walker and Old Parr, said the volume of its Scotch sold in Venezuela climbed 60 percent in 2005. Distillers can expect robust sales again this year as high oil prices lift Venezuela's fortunes. The economy expanded 9.6 percent in the first half of the year, enhancing access to many imports.

Scotch whiskey holds a rarefied place in the collective psyche of this status-obsessed country of 26 million. Per capita consumption outstrips that in relatively prosperous neighbors like Brazil and Argentina. Venezuelans, both young and old, often drink Scotch over a leisurely lunch, at family gatherings, at nightclubs, or as an aperitif, their ice-clinking glasses filled to the rim.

"Scotch whiskey has a mystique for Venezuelans that is unmatched by any other drink," said Rafael Pedraza, a spokesman here for Diageo.

At first glance, Venezuela's appetite for Scotch might seem odd in a country that produces excellent rum, much of it exported to Europe. Then there is President Hugo Chávez's growing effort to create a socialist economy, which seemingly would frown on imported opulence. Whiskey is popular throughout the country, from cheap blends to the most prized imported single malts.

But Venezuela's leaders have tried to politicize Scotch, as they have with much else in this polarized country. Benjamín Rausseo, a comedian running for president against Mr. Chávez, has jabbed the government by promising to build a "whiskyducto," a pipeline to transport the whiskey directly from Scotland. For Mr. Chávez, however, imported whiskey is no joke. He has made it clear that there is little space for Scotch in his "Bolivarian revolution," once describing oil executives as "living in chalets performing orgies, drinking whiskey."

"We cannot keep providing the dollars, which belong to the nation, for an importing oligarchy that brings in the best of everything, the best whiskey," Mr. Chávez said in June while threatening to tighten currency controls to limit imports of luxury items.

Yet the Scotch continues to flow, as the oil-fueled economic growth supports Venezuela's spending binge.

Venezuela has been down this road before, though an eternity ago for a country that frequently experiences political amnesia. Rusting, gas-guzzling Cadillacs and Buicks, the relics of that era, still roam the streets alongside imported, gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles. Public spending, which is climbing about 70 percent this year, is at its highest levels in relation to gross domestic product since 1974, around the time when high oil prices briefly made Caracas one of the world's most expensive cities.

Back in those days when the country was described as "Venezuela Saudita," or Saudi Venezuela, during the administration of the populist Carlos Andrés Pérez, a taste for fancy whiskey also emerged in a big way, as David Atlee Phillips, a former C.I.A. station chief in Caracas, noted in his 1977 memoir of Latin American cocktail-party intrigue and cold war miscalculations, "The Night Watch."

Mr. Pérez nationalized the oil industry, challenging American and European petroleum companies. Rich Venezuelans splurged on trips abroad, with that generation known in Miami by the shopping moniker "dame dos" ("give me two!"). They could afford the best, until faced with crisis in the 1980's when oil prices plunged.

Do resurgent Scotch sales signal a return to the past in Venezuela? Yes and no, historians say.

Like Mr. Pérez, Mr. Chávez is spending generously after starting to radicalize energy policies, risking ruin if oil prices sharply decline. But even critics of Mr. Chávez, democratically elected president, acknowledge that some oil wealth is efficiently reaching the poor through social welfare programs, in contrast to the past.

And while the well-heeled may be alarmed by his rhetoric, Mr. Chávez has largely allowed these Venezuelans to profit in this latest boom as long as they do not become his saboteurs. Witness the Caracas stock exchange, up 70 percent this year. A newly rich class has even emerged, called "boliburguesía," a riff on the words Bolivarian and bourgeoisie.

In contrast to Mr. Pérez, Mr. Chávez has shown himself to be more methodical in thwarting challenges to his rule. His supporters control the National Assembly and the highest courts, giving little hindrance to Mr. Chávez's various antipoverty efforts, which bypass traditional channels to provide services like health care, literacy training and access to discounted food.

"He wants power that depends not on institutions, but on a caudillo," said Roberto Briceño-León, director of the Social Sciences Laboratory, a research group based here. He used the Spanish word for a strongman with a military bent, which has been applied to leaders as disparate as Fidel Castro and Alfredo Stroessner, the Paraguayan dictator who died in exile in Brasília last week.
Often underestimated by his opponents, Mr. Chávez has been consistently pragmatic and patient, as his presidency settles into its eighth year
How the whiskey flows after elections in December may reflect whether his rule hardens further into the revolution it claims to be.

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