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Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Zocalo

Old Bachala was better looking if you talked to residents, but the son's nefarious reputation tarred the once loved father. Old B had a beard, Baby B didn't, that's how you knew them apart. The newer bills bore the portraits of Baby B.

In every other way the notes were identical.

After the elections, "Bachala" meant a foolish man, one easily duped. 'Your dog's a Bachala.' or, 'they Bachala-ed workers down at the plant.' Language morphed the voice into a way to get even. Every utterance became political code.

Barter was conducted for commonly items, a gallon of fuel was worth twenty plantains, or a quart of long-life milk. Two small fish bought a bottle of beer. In barter lingo, green coconuts were the medium of, an equivalence for small transactions.

"Ten cocos for that T-shirt!"

"A six-coconut fish for a liter of oil."

The hundred-thousand note with the portrait of Baby B was worth about a nickel when I arrived. When foreign currency became illegal a new practice sprang up - the new large notes took on legal-tender passengers. US dollar notes were now glued to their rear faces, giving them legitimacy. Real commerce was thus transacted in dollars. Even the central banks embraced this practice, because the task of taking dollars was made easier.

Only the cheapest foodstuffs, and government transportation could be paid for in old or young men that weren't backed.

Un-backed notes paid conscript laborers in the countryside but you needed a stack of Baby B's just to buy a plate of eggs. Field workers accumulated reams of 'unbacked' notes, and fought for bus seats to exchange funds at the bank. Lenders employed women with brushes and pots of wheat paste to legitimize their money. Only national currency was legal tender - dealing in dollars was a criminal offense. But holding the nation's treasured money together with a dollar bill as a backing was patriotic. Hamilton, Jackson, and Washington were glued to most of the portraits of the Old Man and his son.

The frame might be worthless, but the picture represented a fortune.

The national currency further dragged the economy into runaway inflation, weakening the bonds that laminated the two economies together. Prices clung to round numbers, the suffix 'thousand' got dropped. Plates engraved for the thousand Baby B note were trashed, and the million Baby B took its place. What mattered was the single greenback dollar stuck on back.

"How much is that CD?"

"Twenty Old Men." Papa B with a Hamilton glued on back.

Bachala the Younger printed money as fast as he could. The air in Viaduct Estano Diaz stank of solvents and ink. The brick walls ricocheted the machine gun clatter of money presses.

Money was killing the people.

The lines at the central bank went round the block, so I bought a wheat paste kit from a kid at the edge of the square.

The kit included a crude brush, a plastic pot of paste, and a hefty wad of young men for five dollars US. There was even a blurry printout with instructions of how to do the laminating. You supplied the dollar 'backing' yourself. These DIY kits downloaded the job of converting dollars earned through export into legitimate exchange.

I sat on a bench and started work with some dollars bills brought from the States. The instructions were explicit "All four corners must be glued down."

At weekend the central bank recovered dollars by soaking the notes in water. The domestic bills, worn to pulp by rapid circulation, were burned. The elite sent dollars abroad to banks in Switzerland, as rapidly as they were earned exporting fruit and lumber. Baby B prepared to exit with a mountain of stolen cash.


An old woman with berries tied into graying braids sat vending newspapers from a small lemon colored shack. She sold me a ticket to the airport.

I thought, 'I am here again. Is it the same? Have I changed more than this country?"

Wait a minute, that square I knew in my youth, wasn't it by the sea? Where is the sea? Is this the same country even? Perhaps my memory put the ocean there, into the picture. As I have been saying, memory is so faulty. No matter. The portraits of SeƱor Bachala she gave as change were bleached white as sand.

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