The Scarcity Diaries

Treasure hunting for milk, confronting local hoarders, overpriced Pringles, toilet paper dilemas, and black market rates that are both economically and politically profitable  for big business... here are some experiences of food and product scarcity on the ground in Venezuela.


1) What scarcity really is – It’s been a long time since we last found powdered milk, perhaps it was three months ago in a government Mercal. The other week, though, I saw some for sale in a small shop down by Avenue Las Americas. There were three 1kg cans of it on a top, hard to reach, shelf. “How much is the milk?” I asked. 100bs, the woman said. The regulated price is 32bs. “Why does it cost more than the regulated price?” “Because that’s how much they sold it to me for,” she replied. Her face turned bitter. I should have asked more, asked who was it who sold it to her at that price and why she didn’t denounce them? But it’s hard to be confronting, and the most I could manage was to walk out of the shop.

About once a week some young men drive a small truck into our barrio, and they yell up to the houses, “aproveche que llegó la leche!”. Take advantage that the (liquid) milk is here. I don’t even go down to check it out. I know that it’s illegal now for informal workers to sell such products and I don’t doubt they didn’t obtain the milk in the most legal way. They won’t provide receipts, there won’t be accountability. Still, you need milk to cook. So we ask the little stores in our barrio if they have liquid milk. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. And that is what scarcity is. It’s not starving to death as the papers would have you believe. It’s not never ever drinking milk or cooking with oil, it’s just not being sure that a shop will have something every time you go there.

2) The scarcity mafia – They plan this scarcity though, and they organise the black market prices they’ll charge.  The two go together, and they make money out of it on goods the government has declared are “basic needs” goods, a basic right. It’s no coincidence that there’s not much liquid milk, but there’s yoghurt and cheese in bucket loads. It’s no coincidence that there’s no powdered milk, but there’s “baby milk”, which is essentially the same thing, with vitamins and things added. The little bodegas, the Saturday market stalls, the buhonero selling leggings, socks, and packets of cornflour- as lovely as the people may seem, they are part of that mafia. We know we shouldn’t tolerate it, but it’s easier said than done. It can be hard to confront the neighbour who you’ve bought your vegies from for the last ten years and will do so for the next ten. I did report someone once, but it was a shop in a community I was visiting while taking a day off. It was easier then. She gave me the same old story- the cooking oil was more expensive because that’s how much they sold it to her. I openly got out my notebook then and copied down the business details that legally must be displayed on a wall. I noted down the details of the oil- size, price, brand. I went to the Indepabis office and made the denouncement.

Meanwhile, photos are posted regularly to Facebook taken in Colombia, and even the US or of online shopping sites of our cornmeal being sold there at crazy prices, while its scarce here.

3) Love the government mercals – Just like how the barrio adentros and CDIs actually cheer me up, despite going there because I’m sick- the people are all so nice and there’s such a communal and somewhat political feeling to them, the mercals also cheer me up. In this case though, I guess it’s because the food is so so cheap. But there are mostly two kinds of mercals- the roving ones that will set up in your community basketball court one Saturday morning every month or two, and there’s the permanent little ones set up mostly in organised communities. The one in the barrio where I teach rocks. We call the guy who runs it “Miguel Mercal”. He supplies the school with cornflour and milk for our school breakfasts, we make him coffee. He sells tuna, mackerel, coffee, cornflour and more at below regulated prices, and he’s always happy and lovely.

Meanwhile, in the last 6 months we’ve had three Saturday mercals here, and there’s been a few in nearby suburbs as well. You have to line up early, but you come away with spending perhaps 100bs on enough pasta, tomato sauce, rice, cornflour, chocolate powder, margarine, cooking oil, jam, and other state produced products to last you the next two weeks to a month or more, depending on how big your family or house is. The mercals and our rocking barrio bodega, as well as a few lucky finds in the chain supermarkets, are the reason that despite the “crisis” and the “scarcity” we, and most people I know, haven’t actually gone without anything at all.

4) The regulated food game – still, it is a bit of a game, a bit of an art or a treasure hunt, to find pasta and rice at the regulated price. The chain supermarkets and some shops play the game too. They sell plain rice with “garlic flavouring” or “vegetable flavouring” so they don’t have to sell it at the regulated price. Some bread shops add sugar or cinnamon or whatever to what is regulated bread (panes frances should be around 2bs each now, and the longer canillas are 8bs) so they can sell it at three times more. When you ask them for panes frances, they’ll say it’s not ready yet.

5) To stock up or not – another contributor to the shortages is people perceiving scarcity and stocking up as soon as a product does arrive on the shelves. Funnily enough, the product is quickly sold out because of such stocking up (shops will limit a product to two per person, but a whole family will go and each member buy two each), and there’s a shortage of it again. An opposition person I know, a student and businessman, had stocked up on around 15kgs of sugar, just for himself. I guess he was really scared of having to go without sugar, but he was also one of the first ones to blame shortages on the government.

But now the PCV has alleged that the opposition (its companies) is planning to increase shortages as of next week, three weeks before the municipal elections. It’s not certain, but it’s believable, and as we hear the news we talk. Should we perhaps do a bit of a shop on Thursday, stock up on a few things? Not as much as the opposition person, just enough to get through the elections, just a few things. We know such behaviour is counterproductive, and we aren’t anxious, but we consider buying a few extra packets of pasta and cornmeal on Thursday.

As Ewan argued, “there has to be an oversupply for people to feel secure enough to stop stocking up, for the scarcity to stop self generating”. He’s right. For around 6 months there was no toothpaste to be found. When it did arrive, people would buy two to four tubes. Now though it’s everywhere, and people don’t buy an extra tube, “just in case”.

6) Toilet paper conversations – Toilet paper is a bit like milk; sometimes you can find it, and people feel like they can’t go without it. I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about toilet paper. I remember one; myself and two teachers were sitting and chatting as the kids played. The male teacher remarked, “Well, I haven’t got any, but I just use water.”

“Toilet paper isn’t an efficient way to clean anything, water is. That’s why we don’t wipe our bodies with paper instead of showering,” I replied. Still, some people are more reluctant than others to do it, or admit it. That day I went home, and curious, looked up the history of toilet paper on the internet. Most people in the world don’t actually have access to it, and it wasn’t until last century that we even started using it. At first people wouldn’t buy it; it didn’t make economic sense to buy something they didn’t need, where they were just using leaves or old newspapers or whatever. Then, they felt embarrassed to buy it publically, but after a great deal of advertising, it did eventually catch on. Now people feel like, no matter how many trees are sacrificed, they can’t go without it. It’s worth rethinking these things, otherwise we get anxious, stressed, even scared about not having access to a product we only depend on because capitalism told us to.

Still, things can be pretty funny sometimes. Like the other day when I was crossing the viaducto– the small bridge across the river that goes towards the Yuan Lin supermarket- and every single person I passed- perhaps50 or so in about a minute- had two bags of 6pack toilet rolls. Toilet paper everywhere, man.

7) The inflation and black market trick – I’ve watched a little regretfully as a few of my vice foods have skyrocketed in price over the last 6 months. 100g chocolate went up from around 18Bs to around 38Bs now, and Pringles have gone up from 35bs to 99bs. I don’t buy them now, and it’s all cool. But it’s a cunning trick. The shops charge prices based on the black market exchange rate (so at that rate, Pringles would be about US$2.20) even though they don’t import the products using the black market, and even though products like chocolate aren’t actually imported in the first place. At the formal exchange rate, used for 97% of imports, Pringles now cost US$15.70.  Websites like dolartoday.com and tucadivi.com set the black market rate at whatever they feel like, it’s got nothing to do with the real state of the economy or the real value of the bolivar.

8) Its the psychological effect that matters – You can live without cornflour for a few days- improvise, cook something else. You can go without milk for much longer (I mean, unless you’re a growing child, it’s not even that good for you). That’s not the point, what the scarcity, and the perception of scarcity does, is it makes people feel insecure. It’s unstable; you can’t plan to cook a cake next week because maybe there won’t be any self raising flower. You feel like you don’t have complete control, things are a bit unpredictable, especially the future. Those with less political awareness are vulnerable to feeling scared, stressed, and worried.

9) The queue technique – Small and large supermarket chains create queues on purpose, as part of this psychological attack. They sell a scarce good separately from the rest of their products; from the back of a truck out the front of their store, from a separate register, or something like that. The other week Merida was host to the international tourism fair. The day it started, a range of ministers also came here as part of the street government program. That same day there was a huge queue, maybe the biggest I’ve seen, out the front of the Yuan Lin supermarket, located on the busy, main road, Avenue Las Americas. There’s no doubt they did it on purpose; brought out their powdered milk and sold it out the front of the shop. The queue, the crowds, created the impression of something going wrong, of chaos, of needs unsatisfied. Yet, there’s no need for such queues. Yuan Lin could just put the milk on the shelves in the store, or have it there in a big box, and people, limited to two milks each, would buy it and queue up at one of the 10 cash registers as normal. It’s not a capitalist ploy either to get customers, because here, when something like powdered milk is being sold, everyone texts everyone they know, and within minutes a shop is full of customers.

10) Scarcity and inflation are like some sort of cultural tradition now – Everyone knows that the prices go up in July for the school holidays and in December as people receive their end of year bonus and go Christmas shopping. Everyone also expects a bit of scarcity in the lead-up to the elections. It happens every single time there’s a referendum, local election, national assembly election, or presidential election.The opposition leaders are business owners, and that’s their version of a strike. They blame the government of course, and I guess opposition supporters don’t worry about thinking why the government itself would sabotage things before each election. 

11) But when Chavez died, it was a bit more intense – I remember well being in the main plaza a few hours after Chavez died.  I remember the hugging, and seeing even my more macho male friends crying. I also remember talking to a close friend, about how trouble would start tomorrow, how there would be severe food shortages, because this was the opposition’s big chance. We were almost right; the next day wasn’t so bad, it was quite, strangely sad everywhere, respectful. But soon after that- days or a week at the most, the shortages, the “crisis” reported by the media and blamed on the government, did begin. “We’ll get through it, as we always do, it’ll be inconvenient but nothing more,” my friend said that night in the plaza, and I think she was largely right.

12) The rich are partying – Most people by now would have read that article about Venezuela’s “crisis” where a sifrina told the press after a blackout, “I had to use the light on my iPhone to see on the train, Venezuela is like a fourth world country”. Or there’s the dude in the Hummer who’s written with white shoe polish on the back of it that “Maduro we’re dying of hunger”.  There was another mate of mine who decided to do something unusual for him, and celebrate his anniversary at a fancy restaurant. Still, he said he was surprised when he saw the prices of things; a beer was 80bs (normally 18bs in pubs), a Nestea was 50bs (normally 15), and a Caesar salad, Bs 240 (a full lunch with main, soup, and juice, is 50bs). There are other stories of the things the rich buy and do, then complain about the “crisis” to their friends or the press. It seems to me the rich are having a ball with this inflation and black market rate; they’re the ones buying tickets overseas and exchanging cadivi dollars for black market bolivars, and then I guess with all that cash, they go and buy 80bs beers, various nights in a row.

Meanwhile, the rest of Venezuela is happy to have its free health care, studies, cheap public transport, mercal, state school and Christmas fairs, and so on. It feels a bit like there are two worlds here. I vented to yet another, different friend, and she disagreed. She believes the rich are a little worse off under this government, but what it means for them is that the poor diddums can only afford 3 cars now instead of 5. Maybe she’s right. But rigging things in order to charge 100bs for 1kg of powdered milk (that’s half a day’s wage, for most of us), is abusive, to say the least. Their abuse, their rumbas at our expense, makes me very angry.

13) We made pizzas for his birthday – For my partner’s recent birthday a small group of us made some vegetarian pizzas. They were delicious. We eat well; lots of vegetable stir fries, lots of pasta with homemade Napolitano sauce, lots of orange juice or homemade guava and guanabana juices. Sometimes I make a rocking fried eggplant and rice balls, or he makes this delicious sardine in soy sauce thing. Once in a blue moon we go out and eat patacones (fried plantain sandwiches) in the street. My housemates eat well too, even though they depend more on the arepas with cheese and the pasta with cheese, and a fair bit of coffee. Sometimes they eat at the free dining room at their university, but on weekends or nights they often cook.

Things are ok here. Nothing is overly gourmet, the food isn’t incredible, I wish the shops stocked cottage cheese… but people are eating well, going out, drinking, going to cultural and sporting events, buying new clothes, and new shoes, and new phones, to be honest.  It’d be sweet if sushi nori was affordable, but it doesn’t matter. Rather than wasting time choosing between 45 cereals and 88 brands of the same cheese, we’re doing more important things, more satisfying things, like murals and community organising, and workshops.

14) It’s still a crisis though… for the press – So the 2008 financial “crisis” made it pretty clear that when the private media talk about a “crisis”, they pretty much just mean for the rich. The third world (third world countries and the third world that lives inside the first world countries) has been living through  an economic crisis for centuries, but that doesn’t matter. It’s when the banks fall apart, that it matters. Still, the big business rumour mill, er I mean the private English media has repeated the word ‘crisis’ in relation to Venezuela so much, that it seems to be taken for granted. But slightly higher than normal inflation (normal by Chavez’s standards, as it has been quite low, on average, under his management) and a bit of a shortage of milk, is not a crisis. The increasing homelessness in the US is a crisis. The people in India maiming themselves to get a begging edge, is a crisis. Nigeria, another oil economy, but one where their oil and resources and wealth are simply stolen and taken out of the country by companies like Shell and BP, is in a long term crisis because its people are hungry and going without basic rights and needs. Every morning I have to read the English headlines for work, and I always walk out to the window and look at our herb plants to calm down. The media never mentions the Mercals, or the hummers, or bizarre things like history and context and community organisation. Venezuela should be able to sue Reuters and the Washington Post and the rest of them for defamation, for lying about the struggle of millions of people and our leaders, but we can’t.

15) Organising against this economic war being waged against us – In the school, a while back, we held a few toothpaste making and yoghurt making workshops. I’m becoming more and more aware of all the things capitalism convinces you you have to buy, that you can actually make yourself, or in your community or collective.

And last week Indepabis, the Institute for the Protection of Goods and Services, gave a workshop to around 25 PSUV youth. It was great. The woman clarified key parts of the laws and constitution (the right to food, penalties for hoarding, and so on), but the focus was on helping us to organise against the economic sabotage. It was very practical, she listened a lot, and she emphasised, “It’s not about you doing our work for us, it’s about the people organising, and Indepabis playing an administrative role, it’s about us supporting you, not the other way around”.

In another political group we’re making a leaflet about the causes of the sabotage, with a list of the regulated prices, and a list of actions people can take- from organising, to fostering urban agriculture, and we’re going to distribute it at the shopping queues.

They are good initiatives, but not enough. I know that everyone is really busy, but it seems to me we need to go more on the offensive, be more organised, and have a policy of non tolerance. We aren’t complacent when someone robs us in the street, we get outraged, and I feel that we are being robbed here too.

For a more statistical and contextual analysis of the food situation, see VA’s article Scarcity and Starvation? Venezuelan Food FAQs