Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dinner Table Conversation

We have had visitors this week. Economic Sphere and his wife are here, on leave from the military, his first time back home in over a year. So I’m catching up on my economic education, as seems to naturally happen in his presence.
In addition, Monday night we had a visit from a friend from Uganda. Farida had Thanksgiving dinner with us, year before last, while she was in town for training. She works for the same worldwide company as Mr. Spherical Model. We have kept in touch on Facebook since then. She’s in town again for two more weeks of training.
Our Ugandan friend, Farida
Her home is Uganda, but since February she’s got an 18-month assignment in Venezuela, which has been an adventure. [Note to my kids: yes, I still refer to adventure as a euphemism for hardship.] We were asking her how things were going, aware that right now there’s a fair amount of angst in Venezuela, following the death of Hugo Chavez. These are political questions, and she hasn’t spent all that much time with us, so she hesitated and looked down as she said this: “I just think socialism is really bad.”
Economic Sphere told me the next day, “She just didn’t realize she was sitting here with someone who could mathematically prove that statement to be true.” Yes, socialism is really bad.
The way that’s playing out for her is mostly cultural, because she’s getting paid by an international company, so it’s less about income. She admitted that Uganda has some corruption problems, but they’re mostly manageable by the people there. But their capitalist economy means, if you work hard, you can succeed. In Venezuela, it doesn’t matter whether you work hard or not. The government makes it nice for people who are poor; they build these nice projects for them. But they can’t ever get anywhere beyond that. For the regular person, it doesn’t matter whether you work hard or not; the result will be the same.
That is an excellent summary of socialism, pretty much textbook. It was validating to hear it just around the dinner table.
She’s had a housing problem as well—somewhat related to culture. Farida is Muslim, from a country with many Muslims, but with what must be a less constraining tradition. She dresses very American. The two times we’ve had her to dinner, she wore a skirt, which was dressier than we were in our jeans and khakis, but no head scarf or other indicator of religion. She is a very pretty young woman as well—so in many ways she must be a rarity in the world of oil drilling engineers.
Anyway, coming up with housing in Venezuela was a bit of a challenge, so the company people there (the same company Mr. Spherical Model works with, who would never make this suggestion in the US) were going to room her with a married man whose family was back home. She said no, that wasn’t acceptable. They pressed her; didn’t she like the man? It was difficult for her to explain. It had nothing to do with how nice he was; it simply wasn’t acceptable for a Muslim woman to room with a man she wasn’t married to.
I was somewhat aghast; I am totally on her side. She shouldn’t have been asked. There should have been no such expectation. It’s disrespectful toward her, whatever religion she is—in my world. But in that world there has been a fair amount of social capital depletion during recent decades.
She has female coworker friends there, and they say they are learning from her. It hadn’t occurred to them it was OK to say no, either to a man, or to any authority figure. Saying no about the housing appeared huge to them. But she also says no to a great deal of male attention. One of her coworkers is bothered by constant phonecalls from a man she’s not interested in. Farida says to her, “But you gave him your number.” Yes, the man had asked for her number, and she seriously never considered that it was her right not to give it to him. Farida appears almost alien to them as she explains that they can say no, and they can stand up for themselves.
Farida was eventually given a nice little house to live in. But getting things for the home, including food and cooking tools, has been challenging. She needs a phone, put in the order for one in February when she got there. They told her it would get there in about three months. No one blinks an eye at the delay; that is what they’re used to. (She is renting a cell phone for the weeks she’s here—instantaneous need satisfaction in this free economy.)
Corruption is rampant there. When they are pulled aside and asked for ID, they’d better have it—and/or a chunk of extra cash. The real reason for being stopped is that the cops expect to be paid bribe money. Another story—people she knew had their apartment broken into and things taken, including phones and other electronic devices. The burglars went house-to-house down the street doing the same. Eventually they were caught, and the stolen items were easily recoverable—but the police kept the items, with a sense of entitlement. The people were powerless.
The government provides the basic foods it decides people should have: usually chicken and some kind of white bread. Farida is mostly vegetarian, and tries to be gluten free. She’s used to fresh fruits and vegetables, which are expensive and hard to come by in Venezuela, despite the climate.
There was a cultural oddity I hadn’t expected in Venezuela, which at one time was one of the more Europeanized nations of South America. Foreigners are rare, and they stand out—so much so that people turn and stare at Farida everywhere she goes. She’s beginning to learn Spanish, but in the meantime, communication is a huge struggle. In a dictatorship, it was to the benefit of the tyrant leader to isolate the people. Keeping them speaking only Spanish was one way to do that. Farida says the people seem unaware of the world beyond their country. They’re astonished that she doesn’t speak Spanish, because they thought everyone spoke Spanish. The fact that she looks different from them also draws stares.
She isn’t safe going to a grocery store alone. And she’s more vulnerable if people hear English and no Spanish, because they assume she has dollars to spare. She could drive there, but because there is almost universal disregard for traffic signals, people have advised her that it’s better not to drive.
She has been many places around the world. She loves her home of Uganda best (and makes it sound so beautiful, we would like to visit). But Venezuela is the first place she has really experienced culture shock. She is gritting her teeth and bearing it until the 18 months are up, and she hopes it will be worth it in terms of opportunities afterward. She did try not to be overly dramatic when she said it was a bit like serving out a prison sentence.
So, yes, socialism is really bad.

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