Venezuelans Charting Escape Selling Off Past at Flea Markets

Nov 8, 2019
4:01 PM

In this Oct. 31, 2019 photo, Yenika Calderon, 41, holds her 10-month-old baby Gael, while standing inside her apartment with suitcases packed with personal belongings to sell at a secondhand market, in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Having decided it’s time to abandon her crisis-torn homeland, Yenika Calderon spreads out her worldly possessions in the middle of a flea market in Venezuela’s capital, hoping to pocket enough money to give her young family a fresh start far away in Spain.

Millions of Venezuelans have already left on similar journeys in recent years, and many of those planning to follow are putting their hopes in street-side markets that are popping up across Caracas.

Calderon, 41, has trekked to one of the markets every Sunday in recent weeks, haggling with customers over prices for her favorite handbags and her son’s baby clothes. Inside, she chokes back emotions, forcing herself to focus instead on what a fresh start will do for her 10-month-old son, Gael, diagnosed with Down syndrome.

“There are no options for him here,” Calderon said. “I want to be able to go to the supermarket and get the best milk for my son. Here, I can’t.”

Some of the secondhand street markets pop-up on Sundays or get organized through social media. Sellers bank on peddling personal items like clothes and household items to finance a new life abroad.

The biggest one is Garage del Sol, where hundreds of shoppers are drawn each Sunday looking for items at bargain prices. Loud music and food stands welcome customers all afternoon.

An estimated 4.5 million people have fled Venezuela since 2015, escaping hyperinflation, failing services, a lack of security and political division in a country that was once among the richest in Latin America because of its vast oil reserves. Officials say Venezuela’s exodus could soon surpass the 5.6 million who have left conflict-ravaged Syria since 2011.

Most Venezuelans go to nearby countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the United Nations. Colombia hosts the greatest number, an estimated 1.4 million, while hundreds of thousands more have fled to Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil.

Calderon said it wasn’t an easy decision to sell off her belongings and uproot her family. Until recently, she had gotten by on meager profits from her small business selling Venezuelan-made clothes in a mall and at a popular outdoor market.

But as textile workers joined in the exodus, she had to turn to importing clothes. It was a losing fight. With inflation continuing to sizzle amid the economy’s collapse, her sales dropped to the point that she had to close her shops.

“Everything has vanished into thin air,” she said.

On a good day she nets up to $50 at the flea market, but Calderon declined to say how much she has saved up, though she conceded it isn’t enough yet to pay for her family’s planned move to Spain early next year, following relatives.

At a similar street market on the other side of the city, Fatima De Asençao, a teacher and mother of two, sold her children’s car seats, a chocolate fountain and old toys.

“We’re getting rid of the things that we can’t take with us and saving money to afford the trip,” said De Asençao, who also plans to head to Spain with her family.

Leticia Guerra, who runs the outdoor market, said there are items for every budget. She said even foreign ambassadors visit the market, not only because of the prices but also for the picturesque ambiance. The market started about three years ago, but sales started booming after a mammoth blackout in March left most of Venezuela without power or communications for several days.

In this November 3, 2019 photo, women look through used clothing at a secondhand market in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

People can rent a stall for the equivalent of less than $4 a day. Guerra said people come from all over Caracas and nearby towns to buy and sell.

Many sellers have long rented stalls selling secondhand items, but they are being overtaken in numbers by people who are unloading their possessions out of desperation to flee the country. Sellers say there are good and bad days, but they never go home empty-handed.

Francisco Zerpa for the past 20 years ran a small shop in Caracas selling new household goods such as refrigerators, mixers and kitchen utensils. Amid Venezuela’s crisis, he converted it to a consignment shop selling valuable items for people getting ready to migrate.

Zerpa said his friends ridiculed him for converting his business, saying he wouldn’t be able to compete with big shops selling new items. But he proved them wrong, Zerpa said, noting that the crisis has shuttered many of those big stores.

His business has taken off because of the misfortunes of those migrating but also because those who stay can’t afford to buy new items.

“Before, we could buy a microwave, a fridge,” he said. “Now everything has gotten very difficult. Importers don’t exist, or very few remain.”

Calderon, who dreams of a better life with her husband and son, said Venezuela’s crisis has dashed her dreams of one day buying a home and furnishing it with cherished items she collected over the years.

She is now forced to put a price on each of those keepsakes.

“It makes me nostalgic because these are some things that shaped my life,” she said. “You can’t hang onto things. We have to accept change and keep going forward.”