In Venezuela, Devalued Money May Weigh More Than Whatever You Can Buy

A man uses a vegetable container to carry currency notes in a market in Caracas on May 21. Amid a crushing economic crisis and triple-digit inflation, Venezuela's bolivar has lost so much value that the largest bill, the 100-bolivar note, is now worth less than a dime on the black market.

A man uses a vegetable container to carry currency notes in a market in Caracas on May 21. Amid a crushing economic crisis and triple-digit inflation, Venezuela’s bolivar has lost so much value that the largest bill, the 100-bolivar note, is now worth less than a dime on the black market. Anadolu Agency/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Editor’s note: John Otis has reported from Latin America since the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, and first covered Venezuela 19 years ago. He’s returned many times since, and reflects here on how the country has changed since he first arrived.

During my first reporting trip to Caracas in 1997, I was nearly robbed leaving a subway station. While riding up the escalator, I was sandwiched by two rather inept thieves who pried my wallet out of my pocket, but then dropped it. I snatched the billfold and ran.

I was reminded of that incident on my most recent visit to Caracas this month. Amid a crushing economic crisis and triple-digit inflation, the local currency has lost so much value that the largest bill, the 100-bolivar note, is now worth less than a dime on the black market. When I changed $50, I received bricks of bolivars that weighed more than a pound. To carry the cash I needed a backpack, not a wallet.

Not that I felt rich — it was like lugging around a piggy bank full of pennies and nickels.

And the money quickly disappeared: It takes wads of bills to pay for a newspaper, a Coke or an arepa, the traditional Venezuelan corn cake. To deal with the volume, hotels, restaurants and other businesses use money-counting machines. Some vendors and taxi drivers, weary of leafing through stacks of bills, accepted my bolivars without even counting them.

Venezuelans can avoid these hassles with debit cards, which can be used for even minuscule debts. That’s a good thing, because as prices have risen people have responded by buying smaller quantities. At a corner grocery I saw a woman ask for a few ounces of coffee, which was spooned into a baggie — and a bit of mayonnaise that was placed in a cup. She paid with plastic.

In a land of shortages — the list ranges from pasta and rice to diapers and car parts — something is always lacking. On this visit, the country was short of cash.

Because there are so many market distortions, Venezuela needs more and more bolivars for the economy to function. But as the Wall Street Journal reported in February, the Central Bank’s printing presses have run out of the security paper and metal required to produce new bolivars. So, the government has been ordering tens of billions of fresh bills from abroad — so many that they have been flown into the country on jumbo jets.

President Nicolás Maduro’s government could make life easier by printing bank notes of much higher denominations, so that people don’t have to carry so many around. Or it could take a page from the Sandinista playbook.

I was in Nicaragua in 1989 when, amid out-of-control inflation, the revolutionary government began stamping three black zeroes on existing bills, instantly turning 100-cordoba notes into 100,000. They were so ugly that Nicaraguans called them chancheros, or pig pens — and they only made inflation worse.

In those days Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, had a plausible excuse for its woes — and those unsightly bank notes. The ruling Sandinistas were at war, battling the U.S.-backed Contra rebels, and faced a U.S. trade embargo.

What’s Venezuela’s excuse? It’s home to the world’s largest oil deposits and — despite Maduro’s regular warnings of an imminent U.S. invasion — is at peace.

The president blames the oil price slide, as well as an “economic war” that he claims is being carried out against his government by his opponents. Most analysts, though, point to government corruption and years of failed socialist policies. Yet Maduro has refused to scrap price controls or currency controls, or to adopt other free-market reforms.

His big initiatives have been baby steps. This year, he raised the price of gas — which costs less than an equal amount of water — by a few pennies per gallon.

Caracas political analyst Luis Vicente León likens such moves to “putting truffle salt on a rotten steak.” Apparently, the government is now sprinkling some on the money problem.

The Central Bank announced that it will issue 500- and 1,000-bolivar notes later this year. At the current black-market rate, these new bills will be worth 50 cents and one dollar, respectively.

So ahead of my next trip to Venezuela, I will make the following note to self: “Leave the wallet, take the backpack.”

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Argentina's Last Dictator Sentenced To 20 Years In Prison For Cross-Border Conspiracy

Relatives and victims of Argentine and Uruguayan military dictatorships react as they hear the sentence of Argentina's court in the trial on Operation Condor, at the Argentina's embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay on May 27, 2016.

Relatives and victims of Argentine and Uruguayan military dictatorships react as they hear the sentence of Argentina’s court in the trial on Operation Condor, at the Argentina’s embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay on May 27, 2016. Pablo Porciuncula /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Pablo Porciuncula /AFP/Getty Images

An Argentine court has sentenced Reynaldo Bignone, the country’s last dictator, to 20 years in prison for his part in Operation Condor.

It’s the “first time a court has ruled that Operation Condor was a criminal conspiracy to kidnap and forcibly disappear people across international borders,” The Associated Press reports.

Under this plan, the military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil agreed to share information with each other to help track down political opponents and leftists starting in 1975. 376 people were killed as a result of Operation Condor, the BBC reports. As The Guardian describes, “after their arrest, the victims were made to ‘disappear’, usually by being cremated, or thrown drugged but still alive from military planes into the Atlantic Ocean.”

This trial was looking into 105 of those cases, Reuters reports.

Additionally, the AP reports that “various U.S. government agencies were aware of the plan,” citing declassified documents.

The Argentine federal court also handed prison sentences to 14 former military officers. Bignone, who ruled Argentina from 1982-83, was found guilty of “being part of an illicit association, kidnapping and abusing his powers in the forced disappearance of more than 100 people,” the AP reports.

88-year-old Bignone is already serving prison time for multiple convictions of crimes against humanity.

Former general and member of the military junta, Reynaldo Bignone, gestures during his trial to investigate the crimes committed during the Operation Condor in March 2013.

Former general and member of the military junta, Reynaldo Bignone, gestures during his trial to investigate the crimes committed during the Operation Condor in March 2013. Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images

Human rights groups view this as a landmark ruling.

“This ruling, about the coordination of military dictatorships in the Americas to commit atrocities, sets a powerful precedent to ensure that these grave human rights violations do not ever take place again in the region,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

“This is a great ruling, with stiff sentences,” Luz Zaldua, a lawyer representing victim’s families, told the AP. “It has established that Condor was a supranational criminal association, and that’s important – not just for our country but for all countries that have been part of this operation.”

As Reuters explains, previous cases have focused on individual crimes that occurred during Operation Condor, but this is the first time a court has focused on “participation in the plan itself.”

The courtroom Friday was “packed with victims’ relatives, who sat in stony silence during the lengthy reading” of the sentences, The Guardian reports.

Photos released by Getty also show family members of the victims crowded around televisions in Argentia’s embassies in Uruguay and Paraguay, awaiting the verdict and later weeping and cheering.

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Fresh Air Weekend: Marc Maron; Reconsidering Millennial Speak; Susan Silverman

In the fourth season of the IFC show Maron, Marc Maron's character becomes addicted to opioids and loses his house, cats and podcast.

In the fourth season of the IFC show Maron, Marc Maron’s character becomes addicted to opioids and loses his house, cats and podcast. Tyler Golden/IFC hide caption

toggle caption Tyler Golden/IFC

Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:

Marc Maron On Sobriety And Managing His ‘Uncomfortable’ Comfort Zone: The comic recently played out his own fictional relapse on his IFC show, Maron. He says relapse is “a very real fear of mine. I’m glad it happened in fiction and not in real life.”

Irked By The Way Millennials Speak? ‘I Feel Like’ It’s Time To Loosen Up: While some of his colleagues have criticized the current trend of starting sentences with the phrase, “I feel like,” linguist Geoff Nunberg says it’s just a case of generational misunderstanding.

Susan Silverman On Anxiety, Adoption And Making A Family In An Uncertain World: In Casting Lots, the rabbi and mother of five explains how Judaism helped her come to terms with her anxiety. She says she and her sister, comic Sarah Silverman, are “two sides of the same coin.”

You can listen to the original interviews here:

Marc Maron On Sobriety And Managing His ‘Uncomfortable’ Comfort Zone

Irked By The Way Millennials Speak? ‘I Feel Like’ It’s Time To Loosen Up

Susan Silverman On Anxiety, Adoption And Making A Family In An Uncertain World

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Be Like Bernie: Sanders Looks To Spread His Political Wealth

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at an election rally in Ventura, Calif., this week.

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at an election rally in Ventura, Calif., this week. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The political revolution that Bernie Sanders began may still be felt at the ballot box this November even if he’s not the Democratic nominee for president.

The Vermont senator is beginning to expand his political network by helping upstart progressive congressional candidates and state legislators, lending his fundraising prowess and national fame to boost their bids.

And win or lose for the White House hopeful, Sanders’s candidacy has given them a prominent national messenger and new energy they hope will trickle down-ballot in primaries and the general election.

“Bernie Sanders is really building this political revolution all the way up and down the ballot,” said Matt Blizek, MoveOn.org’s electoral field director. “His entire campaign, the mantra has been ‘not me, us.'”

Politics turns local for Sanders

Sanders underscored that belief as he turned his attention this past week to helping several progressive candidates in races at both the national and local level.

On Tuesday, he announced he had sent emails to his massive supporter list to raise cash for eight state legislative candidates in South Carolina, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Illinois, California, Colorado and Vermont.

“Bernie believes that the path toward bold change requires leaders to take back control of state capitols around the country and ensure fair redistricting in 2020,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver wrote in a release announcing the endorsements. “The leaders we’re raising money for today are the members of Congress, senators and presidential candidates of tomorrow.”

Sanders followed that up on Thursday when he sent a fundraising plea on behalf of former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, who’s in a rematch with GOP Sen. Ron Johnson in a race critical to the balance of power in the Senate.

Earlier this year, he’d already endorsed and sent online fundraising emails for congressional candidates Lucy Flores in Nevada, Pramila Jayapal in Washington and Zephyr Teachout in New York.

But his most shocking endorsement came over the weekend, when he told CNN’s Jake Tapper he was backing progressive Tim Canova in his primary challenge to Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.). It’s highly unusual for a sitting member of Congress to endorse against another incumbent, but was unprecedented for a presidential candidate to do so, let alone the leader of the party whose nomination he’s seeking.

That break may have reinforced something party stalwarts have long been skeptical of — this independent senator’s commitment to the party at large. After all, rival Hillary Clinton — who still leads him in both pledged and superdelegates by a nearly insurmountable margin — has long been fundraising for state and national Democrats. By the end of April, she had raised more than $46 million for the DNC and state parties through her Hillary Victory Fund.

Sanders hasn’t done that yet, and many began to wonder if the candidate would have lingering allegiance to his newly-adopted party. But his actions this week show he does have a plan to wield his legacy on other like-minded candidates — but ones who similarly eschew the Democratic establishment and espouse his same populist, progressive ideals.

A shot in the arm” for candidates

For candidates who have received the Sanders blessing, it’s changed the trajectory of their campaign almost overnight.

Canova, a law professor who’s challenging Wasserman Schultz in her Southern Florida district, was driving by himself to a campaign event when his phone started buzzing last Saturday. A staffer told him they had gotten a call from a CNN producer that Sanders had just endorsed him in an interview with Jake Tapper set to air Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” The next phone call was from that producer asking for a reaction.

Canova was already attracting attention for his upstart challenge to the sitting DNC chairman, who has come under fire from Sanders and other progressive activists for her handling of the primary campaign between the two. It was a slow burn for the liberal hopeful.

Tim Canova, left, talks with his chief of staff, Richard Bell at his campaign headquarters in Hollywood, Fla.

Tim Canova, left, talks with his chief of staff, Richard Bell at his campaign headquarters in Hollywood, Fla. Wilfredo Lee/AP hide caption

toggle caption Wilfredo Lee/AP

But once the Sanders endorsement came, it was like a spark became a wildfire. Over the weekend, he raised $250,000 after the news broke.

“The Sanders endorsement has been like a big shot in the arm for excitement and energy and fundraising, and I’m very grateful for his support,” Canova told NPR in an interview Tuesday.

He’s had one conversation with Sanders since his surprise endorsement, and said the White House candidate told him he’d been planning on endorsing him for a while. But when CNN asked about it, the timeline sped up.

Canova had already endorsed Sanders’s presidential bid and had previously served on an advisory committee the Vermont senator created on reforming the Federal Serve several years ago.

To him, the Sanders blessing is a validation of everything he’s been arguing in his uphill challenge to one of the most powerful women in Democratic politics — much like Sanders has been doing over the past year.

“I think there’s a real anti-incumbent mood, and it’s part and parcel of this progressive wave, and I think Bernie Sanders has really inspired that and helped build it further,” Canova said.

In Nevada, Lucy Flores experienced her own windfall when Sanders endorsed her congressional campaign. The former state legislator and 2014 lieutenant governor nominee is in an eight-way Democratic primary for the right to challenge Rep. Crescent Hardy, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.

Like Canova, she’d endorsed Sanders long ago and campaigned for him in Nevada. This time, he returned the favor, and the presidential candidate’s fundraising plea on her behalf raised just under $600,000 for her campaign.

“It really gave us the ability to compete on big ticket items like TV and other expensive modes of communication. And it really helped us expand our campaign and be able to compete against very, very big money interests,” Flores said. One of her chief opponents, state Senate Minority Whip Ruben Kihuen, has been endorsed by both Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and former President Bill Clinton. Nevada education leader Susie Lee has been endorsed by EMILY’s List.

She’s hopeful that due to Sanders’s rise, issues they’ve both long been talking about like a minimum wage increase, decriminalization of marijuana and Wall Street reform will now stay in the forefront.

“It’s not so much that we are all espousing views that all of a sudden became popular,” Flores said. “Those are issues that matter to the everyday person. Now, because of Bernie I think, people are starting to make that connection between those issues and candidates.”

Progressives know that presidential years are better for their chances too, where the electorate leans more Democrats and a higher percentage of women, minorities and young voters turn out to the polls.

Lucy Flores has seen a significant uptick in donations once Bernie Sanders endorsed her bid for Congress

Lucy Flores has seen a significant uptick in donations once Bernie Sanders endorsed her bid for Congress John Locher/AP hide caption

toggle caption John Locher/AP

And even in 2016, they’ll have to prove their mettle in some of these House contests. Targeted races for Flores in Nevada and Teachout in New York are GOP-held swing seats, and Republicans welcome the chance to take on the most progressive nominee. And if these candidates are nominated and lose, national Democrats can argue they need more moderate nominees in such toss-up races.

But Flores argued that in 2014 many Democrats ran away from their party, and Democrats ultimately paid a price. Now, she said, the issues they’re talking about will energize their base and motivate them to turn out. It’s a similar argument that Sanders has made about Clinton as he points to polls showing him performing better against presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump

“The party was moving toward the centrist, anti-working families agenda,” Flores said. “The result was that you saw a lot of people get disenfranchised and disenchanted with the system.”

“If you look at the candidates that really run on being unapologetically progressive, those are the candidates that end up winning,” Blizek, the MoveOn.org field director, argued. “Candidates that are willing to be authentic and really speak to these voters are going to be rewarded.”

The leader progressives have been waiting for?

For progressive groups who have endorsed Sanders and many of the same candidates he’s now backing, his turn of attention to down-ballot races is a very welcome development.

“Throughout this campaign, Sen. Sanders has been focused like a laser beam in building progressive power both in the short term and in his presidential campaign,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America. “I think the work that he’s doing supporting a lot of the candidates that he’s announced so far is a reflection of that focus.”

DFA, Sroka said, has also recommended many candidates to Sanders to endorse and is working to continue to identify like-minded progressives who could benefit from his help. And with the grassroots training they’ve done with Sanders volunteers on things like phone banking, door-knocking and fundraising, they’re hopeful that will have a trickle-down effect too.

“A lot of people gave Sen. Sanders flack for not getting involved in these races earlier, but the reality is he’s got a presidential campaign to run,” Sroka said. “As a campaign themselves they should be focused on winning their race. That’s one of the reasons we’ve stepped in.”

While other leaders like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has also proven critical to progressive fundraising and excitement, like-minded groups say they’re excited to see how Sanders uses his newfound popularity beyond the presidential cycle.

“We’re excited to be building infrastructure for progressives running at every level, and hopefully we’re going to see in addition to the Sanders energy coalescing around these House candidates, but also to activists saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to run for school board, I’m going to run for city council,'” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Progressive leaders particularly praised Sanders’s attention to state-level races, something often overlooked in national politics but are contests that can prove especially critical when it comes to redistricting — which was detrimental to Democrats after their massive 2010 losses.

“He’s bringing this national attention to down-ballot races and the importance of state legislative races. He’s saying that it isn’t just about the presidency,” Taylor said.

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