Venezuela and the Handkerchief Tradesmen

VA columnist Jessica Dos Santos sets sights on rising inequality and the "bodegón" phenomenon in Venezuela.

“From the worm’s point of view,
a bowl of spaghetti is an orgy.”
Eduardo Galeano

I worked in the Venezuelan state sector for over a decade. In the final three years, my monthly income did not cover a week’s worth of groceries. However, I chose to pick up extra jobs instead of quitting. I think I held on to the hope that things had to change at some point.

I left when I understood that wages would not recover in the near to mid-term and my body could no longer take that intensity. Nevertheless, in those final months there was something that bothered me even more than the salary: the impossibility of demanding anything from others.

Throughout those 10 years I climbed the ladder, assumed more responsibilities and ended up leading large groups of people. All of a sudden, everyone was showing up late for work, leaving early, working slowly, unmotivated, angry, just doing a bad job overall. And though I’ve always been extremely demanding, I felt like I could not demand anything from them.

How could I call out someone for not doing their jobs while knowing they are only earning three dollars a month? How would I lecture someone for showing up late in a city where water shortages were becoming prevalent and public transportation ever more scarce? I couldn’t.

Sometimes when my mood soured I wondered, “Well, but then why do they stay? I also earn this pittance and don’t have such a shitty attitude.” But deep down I understood why they stayed. In the office there were computers and a good internet connection, resources that were helpful for other work. And surely many held on, just like me, to the hope that things would change, or saw the job as a kind of revolutionary militancy.

It has been a couple of years since I left that environment, but I know little to nothing has changed. In fact, I witnessed it when I recently accepted hosting a radio show in a public radio station. The program is supposed to start at 8 am and it’s usually impossible to begin on time because the operators are always late. Once again my hands are tied.

Some say “it’s important to remain in these spaces,” and it’s true, but staying on while giving (much) less than 100 percent can be a damaging experience for everyone and that’s more or less how the Venezuelan public sector is running: less and less personnel, every institution stumbling along at half of its capacity.

Last weekend I read a study that said that private sector wages start at $70 and in most cases surpass $100 a month. Maybe this explains why when I go shopping the queues are mostly in the dollar check-out, whereas the bolívar ones are empty, and it also explains why it’s so hard to keep people in the public sector.

But the deep inequality that has taken hold of the country goes beyond this disparity. For example, I often do little jobs for clients abroad and get paid via PayPal or with cryptocurrencies, some of the few channels that are safe from the US blockade. As a result, I’ve had to become an expert in finding stores that accept these payment methods, as they are not so widespread in Caracas.

Naturally, I look for places that sell the stuff I need: meat, vegetables, fruit, medicine for my parents. However, during these searches I’ve stumbled upon an endless number of bodegones (new, high-end stores), and it seems like they grow by the day, with imported stuff I had never seen in my life. Not to mention the exorbitant prices… What’s more surprising is that they always have customers and are flooded with delivery or pick-up orders.

Nowadays, with dollarization gaining steam, I would venture that there are four large sectors in Venezuela: those who live worrying about the next meal, those who have a tiny wage which just about allows needs to be met, those who can afford groceries and dwell endlessly on whether they may or may not enjoy a tiny “luxury” like eating out, and those who buy stuff regularly in these ostentatious stores.

In Venezuela the bourgeoisie is used to traveling to Miami, while tax-free imported products were staples in high-end tourist destinations like Margarita Island. In fact, when I was a kid, seeing Evian or Perrier bottled water was surprising. Nowadays there are dozens of water options. Amidst this tough crisis, it’s shocking to say the least.

A friend of mine who works in delivery told me a few days ago how he has witnessed the widening gap emerging in Venezuela. While some – pandemic and quarantine notwithstanding – push and shove to board a train to go to work, others get by adding things to a virtual shopping cart. “In this sector there’s no escaping the two Venezuelas. Some people will spend $300 on sushi, $200 on McDonald’s, $20 on cookies,” he said.

None of this means to ignore that we are under a murderous blockade and that the government’s options are limited. However, we have lost any pretense that we are all on the same boat. It’s a free-for-all and the rich, whether old or new, are the “freest” and can afford imported mineral water. In times of crisis, some cry and others sell handkerchiefs.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.