“Big business” has become a favorite target of public scorn and contempt in the United States, constantly decried for its impersonal forces, cronyist lobbying efforts, and supposed greed.
In Venezuela, however, the country’s largest privately owned company has become a leading face of anti-government resistance.
The Caracas-based food and drink producer is beloved by the Venezuelan people, in part for its range of popular food products, but also for its rebellious stances against an unpopular socialist regime. Such stances typically spring from the company’s billionaire CEO, Lorenzo Mendoza, whom the late Hugo Chavez once called a pelucón (“bigwig conservative”) who deserves a “place in hell.”
In the Financial Times, Andres Schipani offers a fascinating report on the key developments:
[Polar’s] success is hard to swallow for the government, which continues to have Polar in its inquisitorial grip. Police intelligence agents are sometimes stationed outside its offices for no apparent reason. Company employees report that the agents eagerly accept Polar drinks or snacks offered to them as a break from the tedium.
…The company’s contribution to the food sector is such that neither Chávez (who died four years ago) nor his benighted successor have felt it prudent to carry out threats of expropriation. The reason? Venezuelans are barely able to let a day go by without getting their hands on Polar products.
As Schipani explains, the company boasts a 90 percent approval rating while the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, garners less than 12 percent (according to a local pollster).
After the death of Chavez, there was a moment where some thought Maduro may look more favorably on companies like Polar. But alas, the tensions have continued to broil:
Maduro is still apt to accuse Mendoza of being a price-gouging coup-monger who stockpiles food in order to wage “economic war” against the Chavista revolution. More damaging, the government retains control of legal sales of hard currency to pay for imports in a country that produces little of its own other than oil.
…Last year, Mendoza urged the government to stop strangling the private sector. The embattled Maduro roared back at him on television: “If you cannot handle your companies, hand them over to the people who can.” The president rounded off by labelling the Polar chief a “bandit, thief, oligarch, traitor”.
Informed sources in Caracas suggest that what the government cannot bring itself to shout about is that the food shortages — increasingly a source of widespread discontent — might have something to do with official policy shortcomings. Venezuelans’ reaction, therefore, should some of their favourite food and drink brands fall into state hands, could spark unrest, which would be one of the last things the Maduro administration needs.
At a time when Venezuelan officials have taken to locking up bakers in pursuit of a so-called “bread war” — nit-picking over ingredient quotas rather than fixing laws that compound human suffering — Polar’s openly defiant position is a breath of fresh air. Further, in an era where big business is often ridiculed and rarely praised, it’s a reminder of the good it can achieve, even amid and against the abuses of the state.
As the Venezuelan government continues to erode the country’s economic infrastructure, squeezing its citizens via coercive government tricks, Polar and other Venezuelan businesses are trying their best to meet basic human needs using basic human exchange.
When this is the choice — “21st-century socialism” vs. 21st-century “big business” — Venezuelans are making their preferences clear.
“Ordinary people say that even if the government wants to trounce Polar, they will stand up and defend it,” says a Polar executive, according to Schipani. “The more the government punches us, the more the people love us.”