Venezuelan middle-class struggles with shrinking money


Venezuela’s minimum monthly salary is 15,051 bolivares, which a government subsidy for all workers bumps up to nearly 18,600 bolivares. But no matter how you cut it, it’s barely enough to live on.

Under the strongest official exchange rate given by the government — where 10 bolivars equals $1 — that would theoretically be equivalent to $1,500. Except that rate is reserved for importing basics like essential food and medicine.

There is another, floating rate called the DICOM, which applies to purchases by international credit cards, for instance. That fetches 452.08 bolivares.

But for ordinary Venezuelans who neither import food nor carry around a foreign credit card, the rate they face on the streets is far, far worse.

It’s 1,000 bolivares to $1, and that’s a costly exchange that’s applied to just about anything that is imported or requires imported ingredients. Which means most goods in Venezuela , which has long relied on its oil wealth to bring in what it needs.

Under that rate, a minimum-wage earner is bringing back just under $20 per month.

Even for Venezuelans pocketing more than that, the hyperinflation hitting their bolivares makes conditions unthinkably expensive.

That means the middle class, most of it sliding into poverty, sees anything but food purchases as a luxury.

“Everybody is knocked low,” Michael Leal, a 34-year-old manager of an eyewear store in Caracas, told AFP. “We can’t breathe.”

– Shuttered stores –

In Chacao, a middle-class neighborhood in the capital, office workers lined up outside a nut store to buy the cheapest lunch they could afford. Nearby restaurants were all but empty.

Superficially it looks like the center of any other major Latin American city: skyscrapers, dense traffic, pedestrians in short sleeves bustling along the sidewalks.

But study it more closely and you can see the economic malaise. Many stores, particularly those that sold electronics, are shuttered.

“It’s horrible now,” said Marta Gonzalez, the 69-year-old manager of a corner beauty products store.

“Nobody is buying anything really. Just food,” she said, as a male customer used a debit card to pay for a couple of razor blades.

A sign above the register said “We don’t accept credit cards.”

– Lines for necessities –

An upmarket shopping center nearby boasted a leafy rooftop terrace, a spacious Hard Rock cafe, chain stores for Zara, Swarovski and Armani Exchange.

They were all virtually deserted except for bored sales staff.

Instead a line of around 200 people was waiting patiently in front of a pharmacy.

They didn’t know what for, exactly, just that the routine now was to line up for daily deliveries of one subsidized personal hygiene product or another — toothpaste, for instance — and grab their rationed amount before it ran out, usually within a couple of minutes.

“We do this every week. And we don’t know what we’re trying to buy,” said Kevin Jaimes, a 21-year-old auto parts salesman waiting with his family.

“What’s frustrating is when you get into a gigantic line but they run out before you get any.”

The alternative then is to turn to black market merchants who sell goods at grossly inflated rates, often 100 times more than the subsidized price tag.

Jaimes lives with his family of seven, and tries to get by on a monthly salary of 35,000 bolivares — in reality, around $35.

That sum is too paltry for him to even think about dropping into the cinema upstairs in the center, where tickets are 8,800 bolivares.

If somehow he could, he’d find the same sort of entertainment being shown in American multiplexes: “The Jungle Book,” “Captain America: Civil War,” and “Angry Birds.”

But motion pictures and popcorn, while maybe an enticing diversion, are luxuries Venezuelans these days can ill afford.