Beer Standard of Marxist Angola

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During the late 1980s imported beer became a medium of exchange on the black market in Angola. By that time the economy of Marxist Angola was beginning to break under the strain of a 13-year war against rebels supported by the United States and South Africa. The inflationary wartime finance left the official currency of Angola, the kwanza, trading on the black market for 2,000 kwanzas per dollar, compared to the official rate of 30 kwanzas per dollar. As goods disappeared from the shelves of the state-operated stores, a black market rose up right in the middle of the garbage dump of Luanda, the capital of Angola. At the black market consumers purchased all kinds of goods with imported beer. The depreciating kwanzas were pegged to the price of beer.

Initially, the government tried to squelch the black market, which continued to grow as the state-owned industry ground to a halt. The state economists began to visit the black market to get ideas for Angola’s economy, which caught the same distemper as the other socialist economies of that era. The government learned to tolerate the black market as it sought to decentralize its own bureaucratic economy, which was suffering shortages of raw material and manpower arising from the war effort. Government officials turned to studying the black market as a crash course in capitalism. Soon the policeman at the black market were there only for crowd control. The black market had a name, the Roque Santeiro, the title of a popular Brazilian soap opera played in Angola, a former Portuguese colony.

Consumers acquired imported beer in one of two ways. If they had dollars, they went to one of the government-owned hard currency stores and bought a case of imported beer—Heineken, Beck’s, or Stella Artois—for $12. Only the middle classes, however, were likely to have dollars, which they acquired from foreign travel. Workers often got on the beer standard through their employers, who often paid them partially in coupons that they could spend in company-owned stores. These stores were owned by the multinational corporations that had employees in Angola. Workers could go to one of these stores, buy a case of imported beer, take it to the black market, sell it for 30,000 kwanzas, and then fill their grocery list shopping at the black market, or even buy a plane ticket to Lisbon. The plane ticket cost about two cases of imported beer. The black marketeer would break up the case of beer and sell it for about 2,000 kwanzas per can, turning a nice profit of 12,000 kwanzas.

The debasement of Angola’s currency amidst civil war sounded a very familiar note in history. Hyperinflation attended the War of Independence of the American colonies, one example of many that could be cited. The adoption of imported beer as a medium of exchange appeared, however, to have no precedent, and seemed a bit comical. It may have been a reaction to the tendency of socialist economies to emphasize austerity in the production of consumer goods, even in peacetime. The free market that rose up from the ash heap of Angola’s Marxist economy adopted as a monetary standard a symbol of Western variety and luxury in consumer goods—imported beer.