The international corporate media has bombarded the public with apocalyptic stories and images of hunger, insecurity, and massive migration in Venezuela, with “socialism” and an allegedly “authoritarian” government to blame. To put this narrative to the test, Venezuelanalysis took to the streets to explore the daily struggles of Venezuelans, asking them about the causes of the current crisis and their hopes for the future.
Chronicle #1 (Samuel)
The Migrant Economy: “Capitalism Is The Path That Brought Us Here.”
Samuel, is a young Venezuelan father who has recently joined the rapidly rising number of Venezuelans engage in the cross-border informal economy, regularly traveling from Venezuela to sell products in Colombia. According to the Colombian Migration Office’s recently released “In-Depth Study of Venezuelans in Colombia”, approximately 37,000 Venezuelans are crossing the border everyday as of February of this year approximately 37,000 Venezuelans are crossing the border everyday. These Venezuelans are neither“refugees” nor migrants looking to build “a better life” outside of their homeland, but rather “pendular migrants” who travel frequently in order to purchase, or —in the case of Samuel— sell products through the informal economy.
This has not been an easy decision for Samuel, who has had to leave his university career in order to travel for days or weeks at a time, but he says this line of work is the only way that he can support his 5-year-old son and his aging mother; she suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure.
The combined monthly minimum wage in Venezuela is a little over two and a half million bolivars, which amounts to roughly USD$30 at the official exchange rate and $1 at the parallel rate. Meanwhile, in most stores, a basic product such as rice can cost between six hundred thousand Bolivars and one million, whereas products such as powdered milk can be well over a million. The spiraling inflation has left Venezuelan families, who often depend on one or two salaries to sustain three generations of family members, facing serious difficulties.
In this Venezuelanalysis video interview, Samuel explains his work: He purchases products in Bolivars, then he takes them to Colombia once or twice a month, where he sells them in Colombian pesos.
The profound crisis and Venezuela’s system of currency controls has created a huge gap between the official and black market currency exchange rates, which allow Venezuelans to earn large profits by reselling products in Colombia. These transactions offer earnings much higher than a minimum wage.
“Here a hammock is worth 8,000,000 Bolivars, but if I sell this hammock on the other side, I can sell it for 150,000 Pesos.” Samuel explains that those 150,000 pesos can then be changed over for “16,000,000 or 17,000,000 Bolivars” giving him almost 200 percent profits and providing an income many times higher than the minimum wage.
Opting for working within this informal economy has become the only solution for many Venezuelans.Samuel emphasizes that he does not re-sell food or staple goods. However, the large difference in exchange rates is in fact exploited by mafias who trafficking in large quantities of smuggled food products (in many cases, government-subsidized food) and other basic goods such as gasoline, resulting in growing scarcity, speculation and inflation.
This February the Colombian government restricted border crossing to citizens with passports, claiming that they need to control undocumented immigration from Venezuela. While these controls have failed to eliminate pendular and undocumented immigration, it has made life risky for poorer working class Venezuelans like Samuel if they continue to operated in the informal international economy that they have come to depend on.
“From Venezuela to Colombia we have to pass the border through the river, where we risk having to pay [the mafia] for crossing. If you don’t pay, they can rob you… all of us, [especially] all the women who go through, are at risk. Things have happened, like women getting raped, murders. Those are the risks right now…”
Despite these difficulties, Samuel, who is an active participant in his local commune and other social organizations since childhood, understands that the current situation is not the consequence of of socialism. For him, the problem is the capitalist system that has not been eliminated.
“I continue supporting the revolutionary process… It [capitalism] is what that has brought us here… We are not suffering from socialism, we are suffering from capitalism… (The) government has set the goal of making a revolution, but it hasn’t managed to create a revolution, because we are still part of a capitalist system that continues to rule in this country.”
Samuel hopes to save enough money to stop selling and travelling soon. He plans to acquire land in the near future and begin to plant and raise animals. Maintaining his faith in the Bolivarian Revolution and socialism as the only option for his country, he also acknowledges that that future depends on the capacity of the Venezuelan people and the government to build a productive economy.
“We are one of the countries that has the most potential in terms for production in general terms. This has to get better, and we are the ones who have to make it better. The thing is that we have to start small and get bigger, and start producing.”
Chronicle #2 (Yoselyn)
Cash as a Commodity and the War of Emotions
Two years ago Yoselyn, a 23-year-old Venezuelan woman, had to leave behind her activism in a women’s youth collective to work as a street vendor along with her family. They sell fruits and vegetables in a local market to make ends meet.
Yoselyn explains that working in the informal economy has not only sustained her family, but it has also given them access to Bolivars in cash.This is an important perk, given the recent cash shortages in Venezuela.
“It’s kind of ironic that there is more [Venezuelan] cash in the fronteer city of Cucuta [Colombia] than there is here in our country.” By pointing this out, she is referring to how the cash shortages are due in part to illicit trafficking of the Venezuelan paper money on the border with Colombia.
Since early 2015, Venezuelan paper money, especially 100 Bolivar bills, have begun to disappear from circulation. Though part of this shortage could be attributed to the increased demand for currency due to inflation, the national government also pointed to the extraction of paper money to neighboring Colombia as a cause. There, cash is sold for an 80 to 100% profit. By 2016, it was reported that almost half of the 100 Bolivar bills had been removed from the country.
Despite the national government’s promises to eliminate the 100 Bolivar bill and put an end to paper money speculation, the trafficking of paper money and cash shortages continue to be an everyday problem in the Caribbean nation.
Thus, access to paper money has become a privilege for working class Venezuelans with the exception of those who work in the informal economy and get paid in cash. Those who have formal salaries and are paid through bank transfers, have to wait in long lines to withdraw small amounts of cash, or pay exaggerated, illegal surcharges in order to purchase basic products with debit cards.
“I pay lower prices [when shopping], because I have cash. It’s different for those who do not have any other option but to pay with debit.” Yoselyn states, referring to the unequal prices charged to between who pay with paper money versus those who do not.
“They charge an extra 100% to use debit cards. If you pay cash, the price of tomatoes is 20,000 Bolivars per Kilo, whereas if you pay with debit it can cost between 60,000 and 80,000 Bolivars. So it’s an unjust war, and that is frustrating.”
Yoselyn also explains that cash trafficking and price speculation has also led to the smuggling of basic goods and medicine. This results in huge profits for a select few at a tragic cost for the most vulnerable sectors of society.
“You can go to every pharmacy, and they don’t have anything, but if you have cash, it [the medicine] magically appears. hey charge you in cash at the speculative market dollar price. It’s totally insensitive to those who really need the medicine, because there are patients… from newborns to older adults, who need medicine and have even died due to lack of it.”
For Yoselyn, this speculative cycle is a war that is not only aimed at destroying the Venezuelan economy, but also the collective psyche.
“While we are talking about a crisis in economic terms, I would also say that there is a social crisis because of a lack of consciousness. A few years ago an emotional war was waged, which includes the economic situation… a psychological war.
In spite of the current economic situation and the wear and tear that it has caused on Venezuela’s social fabric, Yoselyn continues to see the Bolivarian Revolution as the only hope for a better future.
“There is no alternative to the revolution that will put us in a better place, or guarantee us a better future. [If] the government falls and horrible people come to power, [they] are only going to privatize everything! Despite all the war that has been waged against us, we are still free.”
Though Yoselyn remains confident in Venezuela’s revolutionary project, she is also concerned about certain power groups within the government who she feels “have forgotten the amount of love that is needed to create a revolution.” She also recognizes the need for more participation by the popular sectors in the shaping of government policy as well as increased emphasis in production.
“Popular power has to be included in the government, because within the popular power
movement you can find those who are working, with humility… with the few resources that we have. These are the people who have to be in power. We must believe in communal ideas, in liberation, in production, and produce for ourselves.”
Chronicle #3 (Elvira)
The Economic War on Women’s Lives: Resistance and Popular Power
Elvira, a mother of six, lives in the outskirts of Barquisimeto in Lara state. In this video chronicle for Venezuelanalysis, she describes the economic situation in Venezuela and the difficulties she faces in raising her children.
“I have a big family, and looking for alternatives to be able to sustain them has created a lot of anxiety. There are so many things… if you don’t have cash, then you can’t find certain products.”
In a sincere conversation with us, Elvira explains that in addition to problems getting cash and food, women like her face another hardship: restrained access to contraceptives. In fact, at 49 years of age, she recently faced an unexpected pregnancy.
Contraceptives have become scarce and costly due to clandestine trafficking and a drastic drop in importations. The national government blames this reduced importing of medical supplies on international sanctions and lack of resources due to the 2014 drop in oil prices.
Elvira explains that her pregnancy was not only unexpected, but also came with medical complications due to stress and to her limited access to medicine and proper nutrition.
“I didn’t plan for it.… [It happened] because of the situation with contraceptives, so I was very affected. That created a lot of stress and made my blood pressure go up. My baby was born prematurely at 34 weeks. At that time we had already started to feel the economic war and many goods started disappearing. We didn’t have formula to give to my baby, when he was born prematurely and underweight. We couldn’t find certain foods for me as I recovered from a Cesarean-section.”
Elvira lays emphasis on that how her difficult situation as a pregnant woman and new mother is not unique. She explains that many women in her community not only face unexpected pregnancies due to contraceptive shortages, but they also struggle to get the medicines needed during pregnancy and childbirth.
“We have many, many cases of women who are not taking their medicines, who are not receiving treatments, and who get nervous when they are going to give birth, because they do not have antibiotics.”
Elvira’s difficulties have motivated her to get involved, as a community organizer, with the National Plan for Humanized Childbirth. As an organizer, she accompanies women in her community during pregnancy and at childbirth, providing emotional support and working to ensure humane medical care.
Despite the crisis’s toll on the population, Elvira feels that Venezuelans have the capacity to overcome what she calls an economic war on the people. For Elvira, the revolutionary process is about believing in oneself and uniting as a people to produce collective solutions.
“I will continue to support the revolutionary process. President Chávez opened our eyes and he said: here it is, this is yours, build it, transform it, maintain it, make it sustainable for yourselves. I keep believing, because I believe in myself. I believe in what we can do, in the people, in popular power.”
Elvira, not about to let the trying circumstances overcome her or her community, speaks to us about her involvement with the Women and Gender Committee of her Communal Council as a space where she feels empowered to fight back against some of the effects that the trying economic situation has placed on her and the women in her community. This group is now cultivating a garden for medicinal plants and is involved in producing alternative medicines. She proudly speaks of this as an example of the people’s capacity to resist and hold the course of revolution.