January 19, 2010
Mexico City (DF), Mexico
For such a pale skinned gringo, his Spanish was impeccable. We were both sitting in the business class lounge at the airport, and the fluidity with which he was prattling away in Spanish on his mobile phone caught my attention.
Ordinarily, given his very light complexion and European fashion sense, I would have guessed that he was Argentine; his accent, however, was devoid of the traditional telltale Argentine indicators– the “sh” and “zh” sounds, use of the ‘vos’ for the second person, etc.
I was a bit puzzled and had plenty of time to kill thanks to an incomprehensible flight delay, so when he finished his conversation, I asked him (in Spanish) where he was from.
“I’m originally from Britain, ‘mate.” He must have noticed my surprise at hearing the Queen’s English, so he followed that up with “but I’ve been living in Caracas for over 20-years.”
Needless to say, this sparked a lengthy conversation between us about the politics of Hugo, the real situation on the ground in Venezuela, and what he’s doing to protect himself. I’ll call him Baldwin.
First, a bit of background is required– it’s important to know where a person is coming from to get a better understanding of his decisions.
In Baldwin’s case, he is an engineer by training and had originally come to Venezuela in the late 80s to help design and build a new manufacturing facility for a large European company. He spent a few years on the ground, and when an opportunity came up to start his own firm, he jumped all over it.
For the past two decades, Baldwin has built up a Latin America focused construction and design firm that specializes in working with western firms who have unique design challenges– clean manufacturing rooms, hazardous material, etc.
His business, based in Caracas, has been successful. He still lives in the city with his beautiful Venezuelan wife, and they have several children and grandchildren.
The family, he quipped, is his anchor… his reason for staying in Caracas despite Hugo Chavez’s daily plundering.
By Baldwin’s description, Chavez seems bent on turning Venezuela into Cuba– absolutely everything larger than a bicycle and more profitable than a lemonade stand owned or controlled by the government.
Before Chavez, Baldwin described Caracas as near paradise, even despite the occasional political uprising or economic instability.
“In the early 90s,” he said, “the instability was at least predictable… you could plan for it. Today, nobody knows what this guy [Chavez] is going to do next… least of all him. A few years ago I became afraid for my business.”
So what does a successful British-born entrepreneur living in rapidly decline socialist empire do?
The first thing he did the second that Chavez came to power was move his money out of the country… and it was a great move, because a short time later the government imposed severe exchange controls.
Today, Baldwin maintains a small emergency cash hoard of dollars and gold coins, plus enough money in the local banks to pay the bills each month.
Because he is an expatriate Brit and doesn’t need to worry about paying taxes to the Queen, he planted a few banking flags in Switzerland and Chile, and generally denominates his accounts in US dollars.
Yes, he realizes that the dollar has been on a terrible slide, but it’s the hard currency of choice in Venezuela.
In the early 2000s, after the failed CIA-instigated coup against Chavez, Baldwin began aggressively expanding his business and opened a satellite office in Chile. This office serves as his business’s escape hatch, so that if the worst should occur in Caracas, he will seamlessly be able to move to Chile.
Structurally, his business is registered in Venezuela… this is less than ideal for him– he would prefer to have a Panamanian company conducting business in Venezuela, but Chavez makes it very difficult for foreign companies to do business there without a local enterprise.
Personally, he maintains his postal and email addresses in Switzerland. For any physical mail, the company will scan and email, or forward upon request, every item that he receives.
He and his wife also own a personal escape hatch on the Spanish coast where they intend to go, and bring the family, if things become much worse in Caracas.
“What’s your breaking point?” I said, “What would make you hit the eject button?”
Without hesitation he replied, “With a physical invasion of my home by the government, we’d be on the next flight. I know, we should probably leave before that even happens, but like I said, my extended family is my anchor… so I’m putting up with it all for now.”
Baldwin was certainly an interesting person, and I think his example illustrates two important points– timing is critical, as is preparedness.
He moved his money out of the country at the first sign of trouble, and thus he was able to safeguard his wealth. And with escape hatches for both his business and family, he is secure knowing that his life and livelihood are not under the control of a socialist dictator.