In September I had the strange experience of traveling from a week in Venezuela to a Business as Mission Conference in Philadelphia. The contrast between a nation where an experiment in socialism has gone extremely wrong, and a gathering of joyful, and unashamed, Kingdom of God capitalists, was stark.
I was in Venezuela at the invitation of a Christian community that trains Venezuelans to be cross-cultural missionaries, both to the indigenous peoples of Venezuela and to communities in other parts of the world. I had visited several times before, most recently in March of 2017. On this occasion, however, the evidence of complete mismanagement of the economy was to be seen everywhere.
I was taken to a mall where numerous units were shuttered because the former occupants had gone out of business. I was taken to a supermarket where shelves had been rearranged to close off the empty part of the store, and where the main items for sale appeared to be bottles of soda, beer and other alcohol, dish detergent and ranks of tired looking fruits and vegetables. There was no meat, dairy or baked goods department functioning, dried goods were at a minimal supply, and this was in a middle-class neighborhood of the capital city.
The members of the mission community spend quite a bit of time chasing down food sources, giving testimony to the God who provides for them. On one occasion I was with one of the leaders as he drove to drop off a friend of the community. On the way we stopped in a side-street to collect a pack of twelve kilos of pasta from another friend. Going to the street market is always an adventure. Maybe there will be eggs; but probably not. Maybe there will be vegetables and fruit, if someone has decided to sell despite the restraints of government regulated prices. I ate a lot of corn pancakes (Venezuelan national dishes like arepas and cachapas) and rice and beans.
The Venezuelan currency is in crisis. With inflation running well into five figures, the government recently decided to drop the last five zeroes off every number and issue new Bolivar notes. Today there are 60 Bolivares to the US dollar. That’s 6,000,000 of the old Bolivar compared to an exchange rate of 4.6 old Bolivares to the dollar during my visit in the fall of 2012.
Walking the streets, I passed a bank with a row of ATMs. My companion told me that the average Venezuelan can withdraw just 10 Bolivares ($0.16) per day from the machine, and 50 Bolivares ($0.84) if they go into the bank. Yet a dozen eggs, if you can find them, costs 90 Bolivares. People are encouraged to use their bank cards for their transactions. However, a desire to be paid in cash that can be hidden means a discount of as much as 40% for those transactions.
In an endeavor to stamp out the black market a visitor or returnee can bring no more than $1,000 cash into the country. And they can’t legally change that without paying the proceeds into a bank account. Without dollars businesses can’t import what they need. Consequently, there are chronic shortages of medicines, spare parts, and basic supplies necessary for running the service industries.
Transport infrastructure is breaking down. As many as 90% of the nation’s buses are off the road because operators cannot afford spare parts and new tires. Buses through El Paraiso, where I was staying, used to run from the hillside barrios to the center of the city, providing transport for the working poor. Regulated, fixed-price fares, do not cover the cost of operations so operators have divided routes into sections. For the fixed price now, a commuter can travel a half or one third of his former journey, before having to change bus, pay another fare, and often, waste time waiting.
The lack of buses is moving people on to the metro. In July passengers were carried free of charge for several weeks because the operating authority ran out of paper for tickets. A preloaded electronic card system no longer works properly and so, since the reissue of paper tickets, long lines form as commuters endeavor to purchase no more than ten single tickets at a time.
Beef is rarely found on sale in Venezuela. The regulated price does not enable producers to cover costs. I heard of cattlemen who are herding their cows across the border into Brazil and Colombia. There they can get a far better price for their meat and get paid with the dollars that they need to buy the vaccinations and other imported assistance required to raise the next herd.
Gasoline has been heavily subsidized, and a low domestic price has historically helped sustain economic development. However, the government has now planned for gasoline prices to reach market levels. In July, before the currency change, a dollar, if exchanged in the black market could buy 875,000 gallons of gasoline (with the regulated gas price fixed at one bolivar per liter). Gasoline subsidies have cost the government $10 billion per year since 2012. Venezuela is also dependent on gasoline imports despite hosting the world’s largest oil reserves.[i]
Deregulating gasoline prices now means higher prices; still below international prices. To alleviate this added cost to the average consumer subsidies are available for holders of the ‘fatherland card’. This patriots card has been available to the poor as a means of obtaining subsidized food and medical care. However great concern is being expressed elsewhere that it will be used to control the population and subtly declare the support of subscribing opposition members for the regime. If someone requires the card to be linked to their bank account to receive their pension or their government salary, then how will someone who does not want to register receive any income.
However, the subject of the government salary and the minimum wage raise further concerns. The minimum wage, and therefore government worker salary, was recently raised 3,500%, however the government has no money to pay those wages. They are gradually mortgaging the nation to China, opening the doors to their vast mineral resources. As Venezuelans go without beef, I was not surprised that one of the main topics of social media conversation during my visit concerned an image of President Maduro eating a steak prepared by one of Istanbul’s top chefs, during a stop-over on his way home from China.
With my experience in Venezuela behind me I arrived in Philadelphia for the annual North American Business as Mission Conference organized by BAM Global [ii]. Business as Mission is viable, sustainable and profitable businesses; with a Kingdom of God purpose, perspective, and impact; leading to the transformation of people and societies spiritually, economically, and socially— to the greater glory of God [iii].
It was a wonderful experience to listen to the testimonies of businessmen and women from around the world sharing how their businesses are being used to impact communities for the gospel. Some of the businesses I learned about have direct social engagement as their goal, for example, job opportunities for women coming out of the sex-trade, or for victims of human labor slavery. Others have employment in a Godly environment as their goal, creating opportunities for people to thrive spiritually, socially and economically.
One of the overseas businesses I learned of is providing employment to two hundred people in a previously under-developed community where the major natural resource is coconuts. A factory uses every part of the coconut to produce coconut cream, dessicated coconut, shell pellets as a biodegradable additive to plastics, and a fibrous matting that can be used for erosion protection. Kingdom ethics and the gospel now provide a foundation for human development in this community.
Here in the US a business that manufactures seats for utility vehicles developed a creative approach to its need for a larger labor force. Instead of relocating the business, the directors approached the major local source of the under-employed; a federal penitentiary. A subsidiary plant has been developed inside the prison and employs over a hundred, giving them skills and enabling them to earn a state mandated wage that contributes to family support, alimony and their own prison upkeep. Some inmates have become Christians; some have been released into society equipped to succeed; and the project reports a rate of recidivism less than 8% compared to national averages over 45%.
Business as Mission is creating opportunities for the gospel of Jesus Christ to impact communities in new ways. Business as Mission requires Kingdom-minded capitalists, those who will unashamedly and boldly put their capital, financial and entrepreneurial, to work for God’s purposes in the nations.
Irresponsible Socialism and irresponsible capitalism have both caused massive human suffering throughout their history. While Venezuela suffers socialist and economic disaster it’s a great encouragement to know of those who are responsibly putting their capitalism to work on behalf of the good news of Jesus Christ in community development.
[i] Since my visit a colleague informed me he now gets his gas tank filled for free. The gas station attendant cannot be bothered to collect the tiny payment!
[iii] Mats Tunehag