Caracas Country Club: Where the 0.01% Await Socialism’s Collapse
(Bloomberg) -- There’s a new dress code at the Caracas Country Club.
A sign in the vestibule of the century-old sanctuary of civility and wealth notes that, starting this fall, gentlemen require blazers in the dining room and Penguin Bar, so named for the positively arctic air conditioning. Both ladies and gentlemen are admonished that sneakers and athletic clothes are unacceptable anywhere off the tennis court and gym floor.
Of course, if you’re sipping a rum cocktail on a terra cotta patio near the Hockney-esque swimming pool, or teeing off on the 18-hole golf course or taking a horse out for a canter, the rules are more relaxed. And to be honest, the dress code has been around for decades. It’s just that lately, there’s been slippage. So the board posted the old guidelines and declared them new.
It may seem remarkable, if not obscene, that a citadel like this exists, and thrives, in the middle of one of the world’s most violent and distressed cities, the capital of a country whose economy has collapsed and where malnutrition and disease rates are soaring. Millions have emigrated to escape the grind of finding enough to eat, of living without reliable electricity or tap water. And here, inside a gracious hacienda where chandeliers twinkle overhead, there is renewed focus on sartorial protocol.
But the Caracas Country Club isn’t mere frippery. Its persistence represents many things — including how far the world’s oil-richest nation has fallen. The club is also proof of the limits of government power in this self-declared socialist country. The late Hugo Chavez, who dismissed golf as bourgeois, used to enjoy threatening to seize the course for a public housing project but never took it beyond talk. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, has dealt with the place largely by ignoring it. Lately, U.S. economic sanctions have forced him in desperation to turn a blind eye to renewed private enterprise by members and others that could support what’s left of the economy. Some associated with his regime have even sought club membership, sparking a campaign by the old guard to keep them out.
Now, inside the clubhouse and on the well-cared-for grounds, there is more than a little regret that before the revolution of the late ’90s, when Chavez created a Cuban-inspired and -supported authoritarianism, the business class had stayed out of politics, yielding the field to populists.
“We industrialists long believed that we’d be fine to leave politics to others,” said club member Juan Pablo Olalquiaga, who stepped down this summer from the presidency of Venezuela’s National Chamber of Industry. “The old view was that politics smells bad. We were dumb to believe that. Now we realize we must influence politics more.”
The men and women of the club are among those who tapped into the petrodollars that gushed in when oil prices surged four-fold in the early 70s and turned their Caribbean-kissed jewel of a nation into one of the world’s wealthiest, almost overnight. It was the myopic public policy that accompanied the boom that ultimately ravaged the fortunes of millions of Venezuelans and produced the socialist revolution these club members are enduring. They’re hunkering down, trying to hold onto their assets, refusing, unlike so many friends and relatives, to leave for Miami or Madrid.
They find odd comfort in their sense of being hostages in a national hijacking. They plan for a massive reconstruction if and when Maduro can be ousted, as the U.S. and dozens of other countries demand. (Not that Venezuelans are looking to the widely resented 0.01% as their lifeline.)
“They’re survivors, the last Mohicans, one of the few spots of legitimate wealth in Venezuela,” said David Moran, editor of La Patilla, a news website critical of the government. “The club is filled with the last people who made real investments.”
Moran was being generous. There’s plenty of purely inherited lucre sloshing around, not to mention the ill-gotten variety. Government contracts helped many on the club roster grow rich. Private companies do deals with the current regime, even if their owners despise Maduro. It’s the dominant economic force in a country where most enterprises of any worth have been nationalized.
“Many of our young people have done business with them,” said Diana Kauffmann, a club member for decades who recalled her discomfort when her daughter recently pointed out a former Chavista judge lounging by the pool. “We aren’t going to let them overrun us, but we can’t keep them all out.”
That’s not easy to accept at this unofficial hangout for the beleaguered business class, just as political debate is impossible to avoid. But for a few hours a day at the club, they can forget the nightmare outside.
Some members find themselves eating more meals at the club and holding more meetings there, rolling up early, staying late. Habits shift subtly. Economies are made — the once-traditional cocktail is skipped, bottles of wine are brought in from home for waiters to uncork instead of ordered from the club list. But there are still extravagant weddings and elegant cocktail parties.
“Even in war, people get married and pregnant and want to be with family and friends,” said Olalquiaga, the National Chamber of Industry ex-president. “This is not a conventional war, but there are parallels. We’ve been living this for 20 years, and if we’d given in to the idea that we have to abandon everything that was once normal, we’d never have survived.”
Another member, a woman in her 30s who asked not to be named, said Venezuelans abroad sometimes want those who’ve stayed to represent their collective guilt. She recounted over dinner at the club how not long ago she excitedly told her brother in Madrid of having found a beautiful whole red snapper in the market and of her plans to bake it into a minor feast for friends. “How can you talk like that when people are going hungry around you?” he rebuked. “I face days without electricity or running water,” she shot back. “I’m trying to make a living here and to support the political opposition. And he accuses me of ignoring the suffering around me.”
At the club, Sunday mass is an old tradition, but now there are more cultural events. Last year, for its 100th anniversary, an orchestra played on the golf course for attendees in evening dress. A recent Thursday evening included a party for a book about an American who a century ago sneaked out of bankruptcy in Brooklyn and created a new life in Caracas, becoming one of the club’s founders.
On another night, a comedian, Professor Briceno, performed a stand-up routine on the patio as the sun set behind him, macaws flying overhead. He satirized Chavismo, the frequent problem of crossed phone lines and the ever-mysterious differences between men and women. The attendees doubled over in rare abandoned laughter.
While Briceno touched on politics, he didn’t dwell. The club avoids overt political expression. Still, the topic keeps coming up — how shunning active political involvement has been a longstanding failure on the part of the nation’s money makers and how they’re dealing with the fallout.
Maduro seems firmly in power. Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who at first attracted hundreds of thousands of cheering citizens wherever he went, is leading weekend rallies of barely a few thousand and punctuated by rhetoric unmatched by reality. It’s not that people no longer like him. Polls show some slippage, but large numbers continue to admire his Obama-like qualities of trim elegance and ease in a crowd. They just no longer believe he can bring the change that is so desperately needed.
Venezuela’s agony is distinct from the world’s poorest places. It may look in spots like Gaza, Sudan or the worse-off sections of India. Today in Maracaibo, an oil capital, donkey carts meander down streets under non-functioning traffic lights, and residents cook dinner over twigs for lack of gas and power. What sets such suffering apart is that the country was once so prosperous and ought still to be. The horror is partly a function of the decline, of the mismatch between what is and what should be. The club and its members are testament to that.
The industrial association over which Olalquiaga presided until recently has shrunk from 8,000 companies two decades ago to 1,700. He owns a once-highly successful enterprise that produces industrial adhesives; it’s operating at 15% capacity. At least it hasn’t been taken away from him. Many club members lost substantial property to government expropriation.
That happened to Andres Duarte, a commodities dealer and former club president. The Chavez government took two of his companies, which owned parts of the country’s ports. “It took us six years to make them profitable and once they were, the government swooped down and took them,” Duarte said. “One was sold to a drug dealer and addict who’s now in jail. Our attempts to get the companies back through the courts have failed.”
Sometimes the Chavez forces weren’t able to go ahead with planned takeovers. Jorge Redmond, president of a gourmet chocolate company called Chocolates el Rey, recalled how National Guardsmen came to his factory and announced plans to take it over. His employees pushed them away. They didn’t return.
The Caracas Country Club has taken a mixed approach. Redmond, club president until this past April, said one key to its survival was staying under the radar — “pasar agachado,” as he put it in Spanish, or crouching. But it also knows how to throw its substantial weight around and to make compromises.
The club is one of a half-dozen such social institutions around the capital, but it’s the most elite of the elite. It’s nestled in a leafy neighborhood of the same English name — Country Club — with elegant homes flanked by royal palms and mango trees. A tunnel of bamboo shoots hovers romantically over the main approach road. The Olmsted Brothers, the landscape architects whose father co-designed New York’s Central Park, developed the grounds. Its main building is where, a plaque inside proclaims, the first cup of coffee cultivated in the Caracas valley was drunk in 1786.
Today, there are more than 200 employees and 2,000 members. Counting family, some 7,000 people make use of the club. The price of membership has dropped to about $75,000, from a height of $150,000 several decades ago. Only the 500 so-called proprietorial members pay that; for the 1,500 associates, it’s about $100 a month. That is more than 12 times the country’s official monthly minimum wage, which Maduro increased to $8 this week, in the third hike this year as hyperinflation drains the value of workers’ salaries.
A number of ambassadors have their residencies in the neighborhood. Spain’s is the hiding-out place for Leopoldo Lopez, a top opposition politician and Guaido mentor who fears he’d be arrested if the Maduro government could get to him. His colleague Freddy Guevara has been living nearby in the Chilean ambassador’s residence, circling the garden repeatedly in a desperate attempt to stay in shape while out of Maduro’s clutches.
The elite who make the club their homes away from home these days could still pack up and leave Venezuela. More than a few have pocketed second passports, just in case. One popular country is Spain, partly because the Spanish government, in seeking to make amends for expelling Jews in the 15th century, has offered any Jew of Spanish origin a passport. This has produced a wave of Jewish self-awareness in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. Redmond, the former club president, joked that so many members are discovering Jewish roots that he once proposed bringing in a rabbi on Friday nights.
The recent evening dedicated to the book launch was bathed in black humor. “Chameleon” by the late Robert Brandt and released six years ago in the U.S., had just been translated into Spanish and published by a company owned by Andres Duarte, the former club president. He addressed a crowd of about 75 as canapes and wine were served from silver trays. Half the proceeds from sales will go to a fund for club employees.
The book tells the story of Henry Sanger Snow, a New York lawyer, college president and railroad director who in 1908 fled charges of embezzlement. Leaving behind a wife and four children, Snow took the name Cyrus N. Clark and quickly established himself inside diplomatic and journalistic communities in Caracas. He worked both for the U.S. consulate and the Associated Press.
It wasn’t Snow’s con man skills that captured attendees’ attention that night. No, it was the eerie echoes of politics from a time so long ago. Consider the government’s response to the presence of bubonic plague — instant denial. When a senior health official later acknowledged it, he was jailed, followed by a declaration that sanitary conditions in the outbreak area were perfect, even as people were dying. Didn’t that remind everyone of how Maduro has vehemently denied that anyone in Venezuela goes hungry?
Like Maduro now, the then-dictator, Cipriano Castro, was facing small rebellions across the land. U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt suspended relations. The Venezuelan vice president, Juan Vicente Gomez, took power as Castro sailed away, announcing that “peculiar circumstances compel me to go to Europe for a short time.” Gomez, who went on to rule for nearly three decades, became known as the “Tyrant of the Andes.”
Dressed in a natty yellow seersucker blazer and tie, Duarte sketched out the history and the room was filled with knowing smiles. “Can you believe how familiar that sounds?” one woman whispered. Everyone applauded. More wine was served. It had rained while the talk was going on. Waiters used towels to dry off the outdoor chairs and tables, and many of those present headed to the patio to dinner.
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