Editor’s note: This article has been translated by Al Jazeera. Leer en espanol aqui.
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A bumpy transition of power following the death of long-time leader Hugo Chavez, massive protests against the succeeding government of Nicolas Maduro, severe debt and hyperinflation have seen the country descend into chaos.
But, as their country disintegrates around them and presidential elections loom, day-to-day life continues for Venezuela’s 31.5 million people.
In the following account, a journalist and mother based in Cumana, a coastal city in Sucre state in the northeast of Venezuela, documents her struggle to find food, cash, transport and toilet roll and her increasingly ingenious means of getting by.
Fed up and dying of hunger
Today, everyone in the working-class neighbourhood of Jaguey de Luna went out to protest.
Although they once voted in favour of the government, they’ve taken to the streets multiple times over the past months – demanding food deliveries from the Local Committees of Supply and Production (CLAP), a government organisation that distributes essential food items at subsidised prices.
They’re hungry and their children are starving.
These days, I cover around five or six protests a week – all against the lack of food, drinking water, gas for cooking and heating or lack of medicine.
Human rights group Indice, which monitors protests in Sucre for potential violence, counted 111 protests and road closures in the last three months, all demanding basic items.
Sometimes, the protesters call us journalists in advance to help draw attention to their situation. Other times, I’m just walking down the street and see a protest, so I cover it to give a voice to those who are suffering.
This demonstration in Jaguey de Luna felt different. It was the first time I really noticed the weariness and hate people felt for the government.
They didn’t believe the government’s excuses any more. They stopped believing the official line that the lack of food was due to the “economic war” against Venezuela.
They were fed up – and they were actually dying of hunger.
While barricading the street, burning tyres and braving rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas, the protesters told us journalists of the hours their children spend sobbing from going to bed hungry. Children who don’t go to school because, without food, they might faint in class.
Many Venezuelans today don’t have milk for their children, they don’t have rice, oil, sugar, coffee, spaghetti … They can’t afford anything because a kilo of rice, imported from Brazil or Trinidad and Tobago , costs around 220,000 bolivars ($4.40) – 56 percent of the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela, which is currently 392,646 bolivars ($7.85).
So far, my family has been able to “surf” the crisis and we haven’t gone hungry. It’s been difficult because even necessities are very expensive, but we have managed to sustain ourselves.
Everyone who works pools together to buy what we need. We prioritise necessities for the children, for the house and for my brother, who’s at university. Food, school fees, transport and medicine are the most important things.
We have a weekly budget because, with inflation, we can’t plan any further ahead.
On the hunt for toilet paper
Seven days. That’s how long it took me to find somewhere to buy toilet roll in Cumana.
My search began on Tuesday morning: one, two, three, four shops. In every one, I got the same response: “We don’t have any toilet roll and we’re not going to have any in the next few days.”
No one could explain why there was no toilet roll, just that there wasn’t any, just like there weren’t any other toiletries, such as shampoo, conditioner, soap or toothpaste.
On Thursday, while walking in the city’s shopping district with my mum, we noticed a long line of people in front of a supermarket. More than 200 people waited for their turn to buy two rolls of toilet paper each, sold in small plastic bags.
They wouldn’t sell a full pack with four rolls like they did before the economic crisis got worse.
We decided to join the queue; there was no other option. Two hours later, the shop closed its doors on the 90 or so people still waiting. “We’re out of toilet roll, don’t go on about it,” said the manager.
We walked on. Two hours wasted standing in the heat and still no toilet roll to show for it. I spent two more days going back to the local shops, asking over and over again if they had any toilet roll.
On Sunday, I gave up.
On Monday, at 7am, just after dropping my son off at school, I got a call from my sister.
“I’m in a queue at Farmatodo” – one of the largest shopping chains in Venezuela – “They have toilet roll and napkins and I’m one of the first in line. Hurry!”
I was on my way to work, I needed to submit an article I was working on – but I also needed toilet roll.
Everyone was pushing and shoving each other in line, but we managed to buy two packs of four rolls each – with one pack costing 170,000 Venezuelan bolivars ($3.40).
For those two packs, I paid the equivalent of more than 86 percent of the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela.
No one could explain why there was no toilet roll, just that there wasn't any, just like there weren't any other toiletries, such as shampoo, conditioner, soap or toothpaste.
Travelling to school like cattle
This Monday, my 11-year-old son had an English exam at school. I planned to take him but, after waiting two hours for a bus or a taxi, we had to go back home because it was impossible to get a ride on public transport. There weren’t enough buses for all the people waiting.
Since 2016, there have been warnings that the collapse of the transport system was imminent. So, although a tragedy, it was not unexpected when the fleet of public buses declined by 80 percent.
According to drivers, fewer buses are available each day. There are no spare parts, tyres, or batteries in the country to repair the vehicles.
Four weeks ago, I’d contracted a taxi driver to take my son to school every day – which costs more than a month’s tuition because, while school costs 500,000 bolivars ($10), transport is 250,000 ($5) a week, well over half the monthly minimum wage.
But the driver ended up selling his car and leaving the country like so many others.
On Tuesday, we were lucky – if you can call it lucky to climb into a truck like the ones used to transport cattle or pigs.
But it was either that, or spend another day cooped up at home without being able to get to school.
Because of the lack of buses, truck owners started transporting passengers.
People stand in the bank of the trucks, hanging onto the railing for support. Many of these vehicles don’t have roofs, leaving passengers open to the elements.
Despite the passengers being exposed to the dangers of falling out and being run over by another vehicle, passage is expensive in these trucks.
The drivers say that they have to raise the price to be able to keep their vehicles in a good condition because inflation eats up all the money they make.
Meanwhile, passengers like me continue to work out how to get their children to school, to get themselves to work or run their errands on the back of trucks.
Looting and the challenges of being a journalist
Like many other things in my life, my job has changed a lot with the Venezuela crisis. Increasing problems with electricity and internet access have made working in online news complicated. We need to have the most up-to-date information, especially for breaking news, but it’s impossible because the internet connection keeps dropping off.
Added to that is the lack of safety. When we’re out on the street covering stories, we’re at risk of being robbed and attacked and it’s even riskier if you bring a photographer or film crew with expensive equipment.
Today, I was covering news in Cariaco and decided to look into a series of lootings and robberies in Muelle de Cariaco.
The small roadside village an hour west from Cumana recently turned into a kind of black hole for the drivers of heavy goods vehicles. Everything from deliveries of rice, juices, cold meats, corn flour, sugar and vegetable oil, up to crates of beer was taken.
The business and commercial sector of Sucre has confirmed on several occasions that one of the reasons that the lack of food has increased in the region is because of the frequent looting.
Business owners across Venezuela are frightened to lose goods in transit, and while empty shelves in the supermarket are a common sight, the robberies are even more frequent.
Those who live in Muelle de Cariaco claim that criminal gangs facilitate the looting and robbing of the trucks in order to get goods and sell them on at exorbitant prices.
There have been clashes with the National Guard, and security forces put up six roadblocks between Cumana and Muelle de Cariaco, but this hasn’t stopped the looting.
I took a taxi to the village.
But while I was interviewing a group of women who fearfully told me that members of a criminal gang had started the looting, a man, about 30 or so years old, dressed in a shirt, shorts and sports sandals, approached us.
He said that nobody should be speaking to journalists. He put his hand to his waist to indicate that he had a gun and ordered me out of the place.
I didn’t have a choice, I had to get out of there.
When we're out on the street covering stories, we're at risk of being robbed and attacked. And it's even riskier if you bring a photographer or film crew with expensive equipment.
Finding medicine: A life-or-death struggle
In Cumana, sundries have gradually been becoming less available since 2013, but it was in 2016 when the shelves began to empty.
There was no food. It was distressing to go to a supermarket and not find one single basic item – sometimes after hours and hours of waiting in line.
And there was also a lack of medicine.
My son has severe allergies and needs a constant supply of antihistamines. He will go into anaphylactic shock without them.
Sometimes, we can’t find any antihistamines in Cumana and need to go to other cities. I’m divorced and my son’s father lives in Caracas, where he’s always looking for the medicine. I also ask my friends who live in big cities to help me find medicine and then I pay them, but it is difficult.
There are government restrictions on sending medicine by courier, so we have to use other strategies – such as sending it with people we know who happen to be travelling to Cumana or sending it hidden inside magazines or books. We’ve done things like this to make sure the child gets his medicine.
In June 2017, my sister, who’s only 29, suffered from an infection of the central nervous system and was near death because of a lack of antibiotics.
She was hospitalised and her health declined, but they didn’t have the antibiotics she needed. We tried to buy them but the few we could find were very expensive, and the amount we needed for her treatment was well beyond what we could afford.
On some occasions we were ripped off, having bought “medicine” that actually contained harmful substances, but was sold as antibiotics.
Finally, our family and friends who lived in other cities helped us to find and buy some, they fundraised and got support from social media.
They were difficult times, but with much effort and luck, we were able to save my sister.
Cash crunch: A victory against the daily grind
On Tuesday, I won a small victory against the daily grind. I was able to get 150,000 bolivars ($3.00) in bills. With this money, I could pay for my son’s transport to and from school for a week.
I got the money without paying a percentage to the resellers, or standing in endless lines at a bank, which would only give me 20 percent of the amount, without caring if I wanted or needed more.
I got the bills in a pharmacy where I was looking for my son’s antihistamines.
A lady went to pay for medication with cash and I offered to pay for it with my debit card in exchange for the bills.
It’s all a question of luck. Sometimes, people say “no” or the shop owners refuse the transaction because the shop also needs cash.
I’m not always lucky, so this was a victory.
Usually, I have to go to the bank at 5am and spend hours in line with no guarantee that the bank will even have any money on hand. And if they do, they’ll only give out 30,000 bolivars ($0.60) to each person.
It’s either that, or I have to contact someone who sells cash and then, it costs double the amount.
Finding someone that sells cash isn’t easy. It’s a shady business because they can be fined by the authorities, although under national laws selling cash isn’t a crime.
A person with large sums of cash is a reseller or “bachaquero”, which is the term the government use for people who sell cash, food or toiletries on the black market. They can have their money confiscated and be arrested.
The lack of cash has boosted electronic transfers by debit, credit or bank transfer. I pay for everything this way, from a kilo of bananas to a cup of coffee.
When you get cash, you must save it for transport, because they only accept cash.
After the emotionally exhausting search for cash, I can’t help but remember a time not so far in the past when, if I wanted to get cash, all I had to do was go to an ATM. That was 2016.
Shopping days and why items have three prices
For more than 10 years, there was a hardware store in Cumana run by a grey-haired Arab man. But since December 2017, it has sold more than screws, nails and pipes.
The owner has divided the shop into two parts: one for hardware goods and another for food where he sells rice by the kilo, eggs by the dozen, packets of wheat flour, sugar and spaghetti.
Everything is imported from countries like Brazil or Trinidad and Tobago.
These goods have three prices, like the majority of those sold in Venezuela. It all depends on how you pay for them. If you pay cash, the cost is less. If you pay with a debit card, the price is bumped up by 10 percent and if you pay by bank transfer, the price rises by 40 percent.
I always have to pay more for things than they are actually worth. With the difficulties of getting cash, I don’t have the luxury of using it even to buy things like bread, because I need to put it aside for public transport.
A packet of corn flour, the most basic ingredient for making arepas (corn cakes that are a key part of the Venezuelan diet), costs 80,000 bolivars in cash ($1.60), 110,000 by debit ($2.20), and 130,000 by bank transfer ($2.60). It’s the same with rice, beef, chicken, toothpaste or soap – everything has different prices.
And prices keep changing with inflation.
No one on the minimum wage in Venezuela has access to the items considered to be part of a Venezuelan’s “basic basket” (food, transport, education, clothing, housing, etc) unless they receive government subsidies in the form of bags of food from the CLAP.
But not everyone has access to even these basics. You need to have a special identity card. To get this card, you have to answer government questions about your political affiliation, your family, the number of people living in your house and whether you’re receiving any subsidies from the government.
The card specifies which days you can buy specific necessities, as a way to manage demand for scarce items. The day depends on the number of the identity card. For example, people with numbers ending in zero, three or five, can shop on Wednesdays and Fridays.
This only applies to products sold by the government and shops. With imported products, as long as you have the money you can buy them.
In July 2016, there was a wave of looting in Cumana, all brought on by protests that began with demands for bags of food from CLAP and ended with three people shot dead, more than 400 arrested and some 70 shops looted.
Back then, food was nowhere to be found.
At the beginning of 2018, people are just as hungry, although the conditions have changed.
There is imported food in the shops, in fact, many shops decided to stop selling clothes and footwear and sell imported food instead. But the goods are not affordable because the owners sell at black market prices.
A kilogram of meat or cheese can cost as much as a month’s salary. Because of this, the diet of the people of Cumana is often limited to fresh sardines – which cost 30,000 bolivars ($0.60) a kilo – and arepas made with ground corn and sold in little bags at 40,000 bolivars ($0.80) a kilo.
Editor’s note: At time of publication, the exchange rate was 250,000 Bolivars to the dollar but, due to inflation, prices change frequently.