Even in his worst nightmares, Armando Rojas, a longtime business owner in the beach town of Puerto Cabello, never expected to see such scenes of economic struggle in Venezuela.
Against the backdrop of both political and economic turmoil that has worsened in recent months, the former playing out mostly in Caracas, Rojas has seen how hard times are affecting people in the once-bustling seaport, about 200 kilometres west of the capital.
“I never imagined it could get ever get to this point,” says the businessman, now in his early 60s and with 15 years of success in his line of work. “It’s a disaster what they’ve done to our country,” referring to backers of a president who critics say is hurting business with his policies.
His words are echoed by others who warn that the once-prosperous country is teetering on the edge of an economic freefall and worsening social upheaval. Those voices are primarily political opponents of President Nicolas Maduro and his new legislative assembly, which opposition politicians say could dismantle democracy itself in Venezuela.
Those voices are primarily political opponents of President Nicolas Maduro and his new legislative assembly, which opposition politicians say could dismantle democracy itself in Venezuela.
Rojas’s business, which he asked to keep anonymous because he fears government reprisal, thrived in Puerto Cabello not too long ago. Although it was never a tourist hotbed the likes of Venezuela’s famed Margarita Island, Rojas would still see visitors from across the world. In fact, their business accounted for 70 per cent of his company’s income.
But now, those free-spending tourists are all gone and his business relies entirely on cash-starved locals. Despite lowering prices to keep pace with falling income levels in the country, his company operates at just 10 per cent of what it once did. It’s so bad that he says he’s only stayed open for the sake of the the staff he employs, but that can only go on for so much longer.
Business still runs, only to help feed families
“We’re not making any money anymore,” says Rojas, “and the only reason this still runs is so that my employees can still take home a bit of money to feed their families.”
Rojas believes he’ll forced to shut down soon.
His business operates in a town whose beachfront area is like any picture-perfect Caribbean town. Here, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the cool ocean breeze floats through the town’s narrow streets, lined by 19th-century buildings adorned with the trademark Spanish stylings of Mediterranean villages. The sun bakes the roofs, the roads and the people, too. At midday, all around, locals seek shelter under any tree or in any shady nook and cranny.
And in this picturesque environment, there was once a bevy of opportunity.
A large seaport saw a seemingly endless line of ocean going freighters delivering goods from across the world. When the price of oil was high, the Venezuelan government could easily afford to import products with revenue from the country’s only significant export. They did so instead of relying on Venezuelan producers, who had to cut back business or close up altogether.
Port traffic disappeared with oil’s collapse
But when the price of oil collapsed, so did the government’s ability to buy from abroad, says Rojas, and now that endless line of ships driving Puerto Cabello’s economy and feeding the nation is long gone.
Even a nearby oil refinery, which continues to pump out the lucrative black gold which now almost solely powers the economy, isn’t enough to alleviate the town’s problems.
And the problems for some are getting more critical every day.
In a shantytown without running water, just metres from one of the town’s beaches, families who were once poor, albeit never hungry, are now struggling for any food whatsoever.
Here, 50-year-old Yubraska runs a tiny bodega from the window of her dilapidated home. This is her entire livelihood, and with it, she feeds five people, including her husband, her daughters, and three granddaughters. Yet the only products she can offer for sale today are small packets of coffee, white sugar, and plastic cups of oil, butter and mayo, alongside a few bags of children’s snacks. They don’t even have flour.
She says that she’s requested CLAP bags, which is a Spanish acronym that translates to “Local Committees for Supply and Production” and refers to bags of basic foods distributed by neighborhood committees linked to the ruling Socialist Party.
Staples in shorter supply than in Caracas
“Every once in awhile, we get a bottle of oil or a bag of flour, but it’s not like in Caracas, where there is plenty,” says Yubraska.
She fondly remembers two weeks ago when she bought cheap chicken from the CLAP program. She says it’s the last time the family ate meat, which is now a luxury for them. But times were not always this dire.
“Back in the day, we used to cook a lot of food,” says Yubraska, “and so much that we’d even have scraps to throw out. But now, you only cook what you’re going to eat because we can’t afford to waste anything.”
Despite the staggering scene at Yubraska’s home, she’s still better off than others in Puerto Cabello, like a group of near-destitute individuals who gather behind a small restaurant in the centre of town to wait for waiters to hand over scraps of food from unfinished plates.
Near them, a Chinese food store serves as the staging ground for a now all-too-common scene in the country.
Basic food items at fixed prices
Outside the doors, Venezuelans form a long line in the searing sun to wait for their turn to buy food at government-mandated prices. For many in the country now, these fixed price items, mostly the basics, are now the only affordable food options. Still, a disabled older gentleman in a wheelchair tries his luck setting up shop to sell ice cream to those in line.
At 300 Bolivars, the ice cream costs the equivalent of about 0.001 cents US at the current black market exchange rate, but after the currency went into utter freefall this month, the minimum Venezuelan wage is now just $4.75 US per month. Asking anyone to spend any portion of that on anything non-essential like ice cream now seems like hoping for a miracle.
And that’s why one 48-year-old woman who works at the town’s port is eager to get her children out of Puerto Cabello, and out of Venezuela.
The woman, who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity because she fears losing her government job, says that all the opportunities she had as a young woman are now gone. She says she’s pushing her kids to finish their college educations, but only to be useful somewhere else because she doesn’t want them to struggle through the turmoil in Venezuela.
The woman has worked in the port for over two decades and believes it’s been negatively transformed from a proper business into a socialist party institution.
“When you see no ships, no supplies, no gear and no preparation, you realize it’s the result of hiring political allies ahead of qualified people,” she says.
Self-rationing when milk is hard to find
Her friend, a 39-year-old lawyer and outspoken opposition activist named Maria Xintavelonis, tells CBC News that Venezuelans have had to become magicians with their resources just to get by.
“If you used to drink a full glass of milk, now you drink only half because a single bag of milk can cost 30,000 bolivars and it’s even hard to find anymore,” says Xintavelonis.
When asked if they’ve been forced to cut back on food, both women frantically shout “yes!”
“I used to be fat but this has forced me to lose weight!” Xintavelonis jokes.
The two women are both eager to hammer home the point that they are not upper or lower class, they were comfortably in the middle, and never expected to be in such a situation.
“It’s still hard to digest,” says Xintavelonis.
Although Maduro has found support in the ranks of government employees, whose numbers swelled under Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, those who have gained nothing from Maduro’s policies, continue to speak out.
Business owner Rojas is not shy about why he thinks his beloved country is hurting in the post-oil economy.
“It’s a whole mess based on socialistic economic methods and techniques that have been proven throughout history to not work,” he says, “and now we are in big turmoil, in an economic crisis, and a deep political crisis.”
And with the currency depreciating about 60 per cent in the past month, causing wages to crash even further against the U.S. dollar, the crisis seems likely to get much more critical before it gets any better.