Say you come into Venezuela with just $1 and an eye for business. Just how much money can you turn that bill into using tried-and-true, being-used-right-now scams? With a bit of gumption the answer to that is…$175K or so. Really. Here’s how.
First, take your crisp new dollar bill to a black market currency dealer and buy yourself Bs.85.
Did you make sure to get travel insurance before you trip?
Now go to a doctor and buy yourself Bs.85 worth of medical attention. Any pretext will do. Don’t forget to get a receipt, though: your insurance company back home will reimburse your 85 bolivar claim at the official rate, giving you back $1 for every 6 bolivars and 30 cents you spent.
So after one doctor’s visit, your $1 has already turned into $13.50. Not too bad.
But we’re just getting going here. Needless to say your next step is to take your $13.50 right back to the currency tout and buy yourself 1,150 bolivars.
Next, take your 1,150 bolivars to any reputable Caracas jeweller. There, you can get about 5.7 grams of 18-karat gold for that. As it turns out, back stateside those 5.7 grams of gold are worth $182.29.
Your Caracas black market dollar dealer will be expecting your call by now: the $182.29 you netted for the gold buys you 15,495 bolivars.
This is fun, isn’t it?
But maybe you’re getting a bit impatient at this point. Sure, a 18,290% profit with no risk and for doing no real work isn’t too bad, but let’s say you want to make some real money.
For that, you need to go to a market with genuinely grotesque price differential. And in a petrostate like Venezuela, that can only mean one thing: gasoline.
At Venezuela’s ludicrous price of 0.097 bolivars per liter, the 15,495 bolivars currently burning a hole in your pocket can buy 159,742 liters of unleaded gas. That’s 42,200 gallons or so.
The next step is to load your gas into a tanker truck and drive it out to Colombia, where each and every one of your 42,200 gallons will sell for US$4.14.
By the time it’s all said and done, that clean, crisp $1 bill you came into Venezuela with has turned into US$174,905.
That’s a seventeen million percent profit margin for doing basically nothing.
This isn’t just some thought exercise, it’s the central reality of the Venezuelan economy today.
The catch, of course, is that the viability of each of these scams depends first and foremost on having official protection from some regime-connected power broker. You can’t smuggle gasoline out of the country without a National Guard officer (or 10) taking a cut. You can’t load much gold into a northbound plane without paying off an airport guard. Any attempt to buy a substantial number of official rate dollars is going to depend on some regime official – probably wearing olive green -giving his go-ahead.
As the protests mount on the streets, it’s important not to lose sight of this: it’s these rackets those guys are protecting.
And their willingness to use violence to protect them is roughly proportional to the profit margins involved.