Join Bons Casino And Play Your Favorite Games Online! – Monkey enters the casino after midnight. It clung to the arm of a short man with a military haircut. The man stood and watched the action at the roulette table while the monkey, a capuchin with a bushy cut like his master’s, turned his head from side to side. A maid fed the animal cold chips. Once, in between the spinning of the wheel, the monkey jumped onto the upholstered table and then returned to its owner’s arms.
It was a Friday night, in an affluent Caracas neighborhood called Las Mercedes, and in a casino that had opened a few weeks earlier, gamblers were taking $100 bills from thick rolls of American money. The same silent old women who populate casinos everywhere and put $10 and $20 bills into the video slot machines. The national currency, the bolivar, named after the liberator, Simón Bolivar, the country’s anti-imperialist founder, is nowhere to be seen. A group of men roar about winning and losing at a roulette table where brightly colored chips cost $1 each. What was instead considered a high roller was held at another roulette table, where the croupier won up to $1,000 in chips after each spin.
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I got talking to a man who has a geometric tattoo on his right arm. We talk about how casinos have been banned for years by Venezuela’s self-proclaimed socialist government. I asked why suddenly, in the middle of the country’s catastrophic economic collapse, the government allowed casinos to reopen. He was a gambler – maybe he was having a bad night – and he laughed wryly under his blue paper mask. “To our loss,” said the man.
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As I left the casino, I paused on the sidewalk in front and stared at the three large video screens mounted high in the building’s brick facade. The computer animation is played over and over. It shows bundles of $100 bills raining down from the sky until they fill the screen.
This is the new Venezuela, where a game of chance has replaced the oil well and Bolivar’s image has been replaced by the face of a liberating new hero: Benjamin Franklin.
The late Hugo Chavez, founder of what he called Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, denounced capitalism as a casino economy, and mocked casinos as a social disease akin to drug addiction and prostitution. His government forced them to close; the latter closed its doors about ten years ago. But today, under Chavez’s aide and successor as president, Nicolás Maduro, the whole country has become a casino, where millions are engaged in the daily battle of low stakes for dollar chips and a few high rollers filling their pockets with cash.
, and then I returned regularly, until the coronavirus pandemic interrupted travel. When I returned in November after a two-year absence, one of the first people I spoke to was a middle-class friend who, like most everyone here, was struggling to make ends meet.
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“There are two Venezuelans,” my friend said. “A place where people have dollars” – meaning a bank account full of dollars – “and where people make $5 a month.” He exaggerated. Government employees (including his wife) currently receive a monthly salary of seven bolivars, equivalent to about $1.50.
Since Chavez’s death in 2013, Venezuela has been in a protracted political and economic crisis. In eight years, the economy shrank by about 80 percent — an unprecedented collapse in a country not at war. The country has experienced hyperinflation and an outflow of millions of refugees. Hyper-devaluation has made bolivars almost worthless. United States economic sanctions, piled on by former President Donald Trump in an effort to quickly force Maduro out of power, and continued under President Joe Biden, have added to the misery. Millions of people are starving. The United Nations World Food Program estimates in 2020 that a third of the country’s population is “food insecure” and needs help to put enough food on the table. About 6 million people (a fifth of the pre-crisis population) have fled the country.
Maduro’s response to political pressure is repression: crack down on protesters, jail opponents, rig elections. The most recent example occurred during my visit in November, when the Supreme Court overturned a key gubernatorial election in Barinas, Chavez’s home state, which the opposition candidate appeared to have won. On the economic front, Maduro began with mismanagement, including a massive spending shortfall that pushed inflation above 300,000 percent a year.
But recently Maduro has taken a different path. While maintaining his socialist public statements, he has slashed government spending and social programs. And, with Bolívar’s devaluation, he has embraced it
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Dollars. Dollars are everywhere on the street these days and bolivars are scarce. Prices in most stores and restaurants are quoted in dollars. The food cart had a sign that read, “Hot Dog $1.”
Venezuelans call it “dollarization,” and there is a two-sided irony in the switch from bolivars to Benjamins. On the one hand, a government that claims to be socialist – and sees the United States as enemy number one – has encouraged the use of the dollar as a substitute for its own currency. On the other hand, the US is seeking to destroy the economy through sanctions and stifle Venezuela’s access to dollars by placing an embargo on the country’s oil sales, which account for more than 95 percent of export earnings. (Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves.) The result, against all odds, is a country where the dollar has become the de facto national currency.
Maduro’s decision to bring back the casinos stems from the logic of a late convert to capitalism. The state saved almost nothing during the boom years with high oil prices under Chavez. This was followed by a period of low prices and a decline in oil production, largely due to the mismanagement of the state-controlled oil industry. It shattered the country’s profits and robbed the government of billions in revenue. Revenue from oil exports was less than $8 billion in 2020, up from $94 billion in 2012.
Now Maduro desperately needs all the hard currency he can get his hands on. In the land of the dollar, casinos are a potential source. The first of this wave of new casinos opened about a year ago in a luxury hotel on a mountaintop overlooking Caracas. Then, in August, news leaked that the government had decided to open 30 more casinos, including some in the capital. (Like many of Maduro’s economic policies, no official announcements have been made.) The gambling palace I visited in Las Mercedes was one of the first. I asked a government spokesperson for details of arrangements with private casino operators, including licensing fees and taxes. He told me that he had asked for information and had not received an answer. (Interview requests to three senior government officials also went unanswered.)
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As I waited to speak with Asdrúbal Oliveros, a leading economist, I looked out the conference room window in his fifth-floor office. Across the street is a large pit with a rusty John Deere excavator parked in the middle of the dirt road. I’ve seen holes like this all over the country, abandoned construction projects like the hope of the land. On one side I see the building that houses the offices of Raúl Gorrín, a wealthy businessman with close ties to the Maduro government, who has been charged and sanctioned by the United States in connection with a multibillion-dollar bribery and money laundering scheme. Behind the high walls, and empty in the midday sun, the verdant soccer fields and tennis courts languish away from the private schools that educated Caracas’ elite generation. And in the distance, the green expanse of Ávila Mountain rises against the blue Caribbean sky, a timeless backdrop to the city.
Oliveros told me that after eight years of catastrophic contraction, he expects the economy to shrink by less than 1 percent in 2021. “We are entering the stabilization phase,” he said.
Dollarization has been the biggest factor in this stabilization. Oliveros estimates that about two-thirds of retail transactions are now in dollars. Many private sector employees are now paid in dollars. Government employees and others who are still paid in bolivars often have second and third jobs, where they earn their living. As in the United States, app-based delivery services are booming; You can deliver everything from take-out food to rum to caviar, usually by motorbike, and it has provided a dollar-sized income for thousands of young people living in the slums. About $2.5 billion a year, according to Oliveros, comes in through remittances that refugees send to relatives living at home in other countries. The dollar also serves as an anchor for inflation. Prices in dollars are still rising, but not as fast as prices in bolivars.
The second stabilizing factor is that a more pragmatic government has some kind of agreement with the private sector. “Until you’re not involved in politics, government
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