STARTING POINTS MATTER, a theme QI Special Advisor George Goncalves and I will be exploring in depth in our 2021 Outlook. It is by design that we are delaying the release of the Outlook until the outcome of the two Georgia runoff races is known. They are THAT important and why the unusual subject of politics, at least for QI, is the subject of 2020’s last Weekly Quill.
In the spring of 1995, Wall Street had an intern hiring freeze on after a brutal bout in the bond market. Goldman, Lehman and other bulge bracket firms where I was being vetted to work in their Latin American offices suggested I make limonada from the limones and perfect my Spanish that summer by immersing myself in another country.
Enter Sivensa, the second-largest steel producer in Venezuela, which was in need of a benchmarking study to identify an ideal U.S. joint venture partner. Expecting an adventure, I instead got my first real lesson in economics. It had little to do with what I learned at Sivensa, though I cherish to this day my knowledge of steel production after spending time in the Puerto Ordaz factory. And in hindsight, I know the value of the real-world accounting training I acquired maneuvering the three sets of books the company kept – one in dollars, one in bolívares and one in black market bolívares.
But it wasn’t the actual internship that summer that opened my eyes to the world of economics, and in the end, politics. That education began on an evening that June, when I landed in Maiquetía, the airport that serves Caracas. True to what the tour guides warned, it was the rainy season, which stretched out what was normally a 45-minute ride into the city center. To my dying day, I will never forget what I saw next. Through the downpour, I peered up at what looked to be a grotesque Christmas tree as lights blinkered on and off in the slanting slums built precariously atop one another into the hillside. I thought I had seen poverty on my travels through Mexico. Nothing could have prepared me for this. “Who could live like this?” I asked myself that again and again.
High rise office life was day to that dark night. A button on the phone with an image resembling that used to call housekeeping in hotel rooms beckoned a staffer in a starched pink uniform who graciously took your espresso order. Lunch was at smart cafes with delicious local fare while nighttime drew invitations to elegant restaurants followed by treks to hotspots where you could dance salsa hasta el amanecer, until dawn. Befriended by a Senator’s family, I was soon spending weekends at an exclusive beach club tucked up to the blinding waters of the Caribbean.
To arrive, however, one always had to pass through the barrios, to witness destitution and filth that remains impossible to describe. That August, on that last ride back to Maiquetía to depart a country filled with beautiful people and sites, but at the same time horrific hardship and inequality, a last glance up the slum-filled hillside drew me to one conclusion that chilled my bones: “This country is ripe for a revolution.”