Confessions of an expat – You think YOU’VE got troubles

Every country appears to be struggling at the moment. It seems that nobody has any money, and yet there are guests in the expensive hotels and customers in the restaurants, so somebody must be doing all right.

As a Brit abroad, and currently in a country where things are really taking a dive, it is interesting to hear friends in the UK talking about how bad things are there.

Not open for business: things look grim in the UK

When I lived in England six years ago it was apparent that things were on the slide, not least with the number of charity shops, pound shops and boarded-up shops up and down the High Streets.

Now from those parts all we hear about is political trouble, with the Brexit vote having had an unexpected effect on the major political parties. David Cameron resigns, but doesn’t leave immediately, just as the country has resigned from the EU but has yet to start packing its bags.

Then the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, faces a mutiny and a vote of no confidence by his fellow Labour politicians, although the public apparently doesn’t agree and wants to give him and his left wing idealism a chance against the reviled Tory party.

A British politician is gunned down in the street and the nation is shocked; and quite rightly so, as people of every political stripe can agree. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in the UK. Even in trigger-happy USA, politicians seem to be safer than schoolchildren in that respect.

And yet both those countries are like Utopia compared with two in which I have a vested interested: Venezuela and Suriname. Venezuela because that is where my wife is from, where her family still lives, and Suriname because that is where she and I are. And what we are living through is very much like the decline of her homeland.

Both countries have large oil reserves. Venezuela’s are huge, and they have been harvesting and selling it for many years, so they can’t just blame the slump in oil prices for the downturn in their fortunes. The rot had set in long before that. And this is a country that not so long ago was arguably the most sophisticated in South America.

VZ queue
Boxing Day sale? No, just a queue for basic household items in Venezuela

Suriname’s oil bonanza happened relatively recently, so it is tempting to think it is something the country has up its sleeve for when the market improves. But what if it doesn’t improve?

In Venezuela the electricity, internet and water are on and off, and there are shortages of even the most basic of commodities, from toilet paper and sanitary towels to the corn flour used to make the staple dish, the arepa. The problem is that so many things are imported, and that means paying for them in a currency that is far stronger than the bolivar.

In Suriname the writing has been on the wall for years, but this year it finally happened: the exchange rate went crazy in a bad way. So if you’re paid in the local currency, Surinamese dollars (SRD), the number of US dollars you can get in exchange is much lower and getting lower literally every day.

flood 2
The rainy season in Suriname has been getting rainier

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the whole business here is that it has happened before, and those who have seen it before will calmly tell you that this is nothing: it’s going to get worse.

Meanwhile, as income falls, so prices rise. A couple of heads of broccoli that used to cost perhaps 12 SRD has been up as far as almost 30 in some places, as supermarkets see what they can get away with and reluctantly bring it back down when the customers put it back on the shelf rather than in their basket.

A bottle of nothing-special  wine that six months ago was around 20SRD is now pushing 40.

You find yourself hunting for bargains. You spot something in one shop that is either a kind gesture by the management, or more likely a token  good deal to get you to spread the word that this place can save you some money. Or perhaps whoever did the pricing has got it wrong – and can get it wrong on other things too.

flood 3
The price of water in Suriname has gone up faster than the flooding level in the capital, Paramaribo

You don’t go out for dinner anymore. Most of the locals never did anyway, and now you, with your fancy foreign income and your decadent foreign ways, have been given a dose of reality.

And what do the restaurateurs do? They raise their prices. They have to, because if they were operating at only a respectable profit before, the increased cost of the food and drink and everything else would mean they would be running at a loss.

Electricity, gas and water prices all doubled at a stroke, and all government departments with the ability to get money from the public jumped on the bandwagon.

You would do it yourself – any of us would. It is simple economics.

And outside, to add insult to injury, the rainy season dumped an extra-big deluge on the whole country.

It’s a spiral that has dragged countries down before and it will happen again.

The pound fell dramatically after the Brexit result, but everyone is hoping that was a knee-jerk reaction and that normal service will be resumed in due course.

We all think our problems are  legitimate causes for concern, and of course it doesn’t actually help to know there are people wore off than ourselves. But there are, UK people, there most certainly are.




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