Ernesto Villegas: Bachaqueo is the Free Market in its Worst Dimension

The renowned Venezuelan journalist and politician Eneresto Villegas discusses bachaqueo, or the widespread practice of reselling food items, from a Marxist perspective.

By Contrapunto - Ernesto Villegas
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A note from the interviewer: His face, as a product of mediatic exposure, is one of the most well known among Chavismo. Nonetheless, beyond the ranks [of Chavismo], there are relatively few who know that this journalist, not long ago absorbed by his role in the government, is far from a latecomer in politics and, above all, in the exercise of ideological convictions.

Ernesto Villegas Polijak and his trajectory can be synthesized by mentioning his position as a national leader of the PSUV, ex-head of the Capital District government, ex-minister of communications and information, ex-anchor for the state [TV network] Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), and long time former journalist in the newspaper El Universal. But perhaps it would  be more accurate to say, in describing him, that he is the youngest son of Cruz Villegas and Maja Poljak. Cruz, a campesino from Tuy, a humble man whose proverbial wisdom many was confirmed by many learned men, a union leader and a communist, who lived and died with a red flag in his hand and his integrity in the other. Maja, a Croatian jew, was his companion and also a protagonist in that same life adventure. It’s not then totally a metaphor to say that Ernesto, today a principal figure among the Chavista candidates to the National Assembly, was nursed with the ideas of Marxism, the proletarian revolution, Bolivarianism, and the preeminence of the working class. Just like he was also raised, without a doubt, with joviality and modesty.

With a handful of other high state officials, the next National Assembly election [in December] pulled [Villegas] out from the hustle and bustle of [government] administration to launch him into the limelight: to the stage where Chavismo will foreseeably make a play for the continuation of its ideology.

Note from the translator: Bachaqueo or Bachaquerismo refers to the widespread practice of hoarding government subsidized products (i.e. corn flower, toilet paper, etc.) and reselling them at exorbitant black market rates.
Hegemony belongs to bachaquerismo

Q: Let’s look at the question of political hegemony: you have an extremely big project that requires effort, impulse of all types in order to be realized. The material, economic resources are beginning to diminish, it’s getting harder to shift political consciousness. What is to be done in order to achieve hegemony in terms of thinking, convictions, in terms of sharing a project in a situation that is not the same as that of three, five years ago?

A: You know that I have always preferred to speak of counter-hegemony. Because the really existing hegemony is a capitalist, consumerist hegemony… These are the true hegemonies in today’s world and in our societies: a capitalist, egoist, individualist, mercantile hegemony that is revealed in the phenomenon of bachaquerismo,* which is the transformation of anything into a commodity and the extraction of easy profits– astronomical if possible– placed above a culture of work.

I believe this is a challenge: [to build] a counter-hegemony that vanquishes this bachaqueo vision of life so that we can, for example, promote a culture of work in this area. If there’s something positive about the decrease in material goods as a result of the [fall in] oil prices, it’s that now we have to begin to definitively produce the things that matter to us. Take notice of black beans…

Q: 980 bolívares for a kilo of black beans, today, as we are speaking.

A: How is it possible that on the one hand, there are black beans for 1000 bolívares a kilo, but on top of that, here we don’t grow them? The black beans that we eat… That doesn’t make sense.

Q: Let’s address this issue as well, of production. But before that, I’ll ask you to speak about what is happening in this very moment on the borders, with Colombia, with extractive contraband. In the era of the Cold War, the “socialist camp” was described as the “Iron Curtain”. Today, looking at what is happening here, one could think of that curtain over there as not only political but as a sort of economic curtain, a unique and terrible way that they found to protect an economy of low prices. Today, would it be truly possible to have black beans at 80 or 200 bolívares a kilo in San Cristóbal and 1,800 or 3,000 in Cúcuta [Colombia]. Is this feasible?

A: That is the challenge. We are not going to throw in the towel and say: “well, since we have an extensive border with Colombia…” and then renounce our capacity to control the prices in the Venezuelan market, and let the Bogotá oligarchy be the one that fixes prices of the products that Venezuelans consume.

I know that there are tectonic forces that are very difficult to control; for example, when the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited in the United States. Or when it occurs to someone to prohibit prostitution. You can put in play all of the resources and do everything possible to achieve that, but…

However, we as a country have to take on the challenge, to achieve the national demand that we can have prices determined according to Venezuelan reality, and not by the external economic reality, where there is a confluence of drug-trafficking, money laundering on the border, via the money changers protected by the Colombian government…

Q: And how is this achieved?

A: We cannot as a country depend on the determination of our prices on the whims and caprices of the Bogotá oligarchy and other criminal factions that make up the Colombian para-state. Because we have formal relations with the Colombian state, but it turns out that within Colombia there are other states. En some territories, there is the guerilla state, or the states that they are trying to set up, where sovereignty is exercised by armed groups. And specifically on the border with Venezuela, there’s a parallel criminal state, formed by the drug-trafficking mafias, the money launders.

Here we are not going to give up, letting things cost what they have to cost. I make no apology for unreal prices: I believe in the regulation of prices, what I don’t believe in is the eternal freezing of prices. Here there ought to be a periodic review of the regulations, so that the prices are real. The process of creating prices is complex. But the “Colombia” factor is a distorting one. The challenge is for us to have a border of peace– as President Maduro has said– productive, and we respect each other.

Let corruption be punished

Q: A few days after the closure of the border with Colombia, Maduro said that the country had saved 500 million dollars with this measure. But the struggle against contraband has been going on for months, eight, ten… and suddenly, 500 million in savings. There are many voices who say that the problem is not the small time bachaquero– the wayuu [indigenous person] who smuggles gasoline–, but rather much bigger things that occur under the watch of state agents.

A: The corrupting power of this culture of bachaquerismo…

Q: And the question then is if this [problem] needs a response beyond the ethical struggle for values, beyond, including, repression, but rather other types of measures, economic ones.

A: Yes, surely. Now, how do I put it: it’s a counter-hegemony that must be constructed. But when bachaquerismo is hegemonic– the bachaquero mentality– that overruns all areas of society, then the panacea for all problems everywhere in the world is obviously bachaquerismo. But ethically that is not the society that we want. So it’s a good thing that the borders have been closed and those elements that have been able to corrupt or have been able to accommodate themselves on the border or anywhere are beginning to suffer punishment and are becoming conscious. What is it worth to you if you make a few bucks but your family suffers the consequences from you making that money with the disappearance of certain products. Something that should make you reflect: the state functionaries, the smugglers, the bachaqueros of all stripes…

Q: And that’s not something similar to presenting or visualizing the bachaquero as the enemy?

A: No, I don’t say that my enemy is the bachaquero, but the culture of bachaquerismo. It’s something that we have within all of us as human beings. For this reason, I say that there is a cultural hegemony, that it’s the same capitalist hegemony that reduces everything to a commodity; that is the hegemony that must be vanquished. Beyond the circumstances.

What we are experiencing is the free market

Q: Is there a consciousness of the impact of this economic situation among the people of the llano [southwest Venezuelan agricultural region]? Because– and not talking about Caracas– throughout the interior, the queues are gigantic, brutal…

A: The queues obviously worry me, but what worries me more is the issue of prices and access to products. It’s not only the lines. There are people who are only worried about the lines, because they have the means… There are sectors that in era of the Bolivarian Revolution have bettered their economic situation and are in a position to sustain elevated prices; and there are sectors who, by way of their bachaqueo, can transfer the cost of these elevated prices onto others. He or she who engages in bachaqueo can then compensate for the increase in prices, because he or she is in turn raising the process of other things, transferring the price increase onto a third.

But I’m more worried about the worker, poor, waged, who doesn’t have the means to engage in bachaqueo or doesn’t do it for ethical reasons, and then doesn’t have anyone to transfer onto the increased costs of the products he or she needs to buy. Beyond the lines, with lines or without lines, this is much more serious.

Because, take note what has taken place: with Chávez, many people began to eat meat. A lot of people didn’t eat meat or ate little. With Chávez, the people began to have access to meat, and in homes where before they didn’t. In fact, a good part of the additional electrical demand arose because before there were very poor families that didn’t have a refrigerator, and when they obtained meat from [the state food distribution program Mercal], they needed refrigerators, and thus came the [public electric appliance financing program] My Well Outfitted House.

But before, these families, historically, when they couldn’t obtain meat nor chicken, they compensated the protein component [of their diets] with grains. Now, it’s a very hard blow to the Venezuelan family that the black bean is a thousand bolívares a kilo. Back then, with a kilo of black beans, you took out a smoked pork chop, add rice, and that was a plate of food. That is the concern, it’s something that we have to defeat very quickly. Thank god, the black bean season is short, and Maduro already announced a plan to plant 50,000 hectares. For me, it’s vital that we resolve this soon.

Q: Let’s hope that bachaqueo does not run away with the national-produced black beans as well. But for the social policies promoted by Chavismo, there’s a sort of mortal trap in all of this. If you regulate the prices below the international level, the market will swallow the products by way of bachaqueo and contraband, and the shortages and scarcities will follow. On the other hand, neoliberalism tells you that if you eliminate [price] controls, you end the problem. What strategies do you propose to break out of this trap and satisfy the necessities of the population?

A: I don’t think we should relinquish control, but rather take stock of the prices. The [price] control is not an eternal freeze. I mean, if you look at the actual structure of production costs and you regulate them, and you even support the producer…and you estimate a cost that is attractive for the producer, well, that paves the way for regulation. What we’re seeing is the insustainability of eternal regulation without a revision of prices, which of course then becomes un-regulated by the reality of the results. What we are seeing today, these exorbitantly high [black market] prices, are the result of the free market. What we seeing in bachaqueo is the free market is its worst dimension.

Q: Well, and that’s what is paradoxical: so much effort, so much discussion, and it ends up being converted in the free market.

A: To those who champion the free market, look at what it means: the bachaquero price.

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This above is an excerpt translated by Venezuelanalysis.com.