26 Hours in Guayana


If you’d told me a couple of months ago that soon I’d find myself laying on a sidewalk at 3 a.m., tossing and turning on the ground like an arepa on a budare, in the 11th most violent city in the world, I would’ve laughed at you. 

And yet here I am.

No, I’m not in line to get the latest iPhone. I just want to buy food.

After living in Spain for a few months to complete my M.A., I came home to Ciudad Guayana, and to a country that had deteriorated beyond imagination.

The first thing one of my neighbors said to me after I came home was “great! Now you can go with us to stand in line!”

I thought she was joking.

Joke’s on me.

The first shock in my re-adaptation is the realization that food queuing now actually starts the day before your government-set shopping day, which in turn depends on the last digit of your government ID (cédula). Often, it starts early on the morning of the day before.

Exactly how early depends on where you’ve decided to queue. My battlefield that Tuesday was a Farmatodo. 

I get there by 8 a.m. to sign myself up on The List. The List is like The One Ring: it rules us all. Not being on The List = no price-controlled supplies for you.

The List is at the command of the biggest bachaquera around our very own line-management entrepreneur — who seems to live under that palm tree in front of the Farmatodo.

That morning sign-up is just the first step. You have to go back every couple of hours or so to avoid being purged from the list.

This means that you waste an entire day just verifying your name has not been taken off the list. You can’t work an eight hour shift. You can’t go to class. You have to check back in around 10:00 AM, then 12:00 PM, then 2:00 PM, then 4:00 PM, then 6:00 PM, and so on.

If you’re lucky enough to have a car with an air conditioner, it’s all much more tolerable. If you don’t, then you have to use the city’s horrible transport system and deal with the city’s infamous climate. Going back and forth in a shabby bus in the 42° C heat is punishing.

Your spot in queue is an investment. You have to tend to it. It’s a good idea to buy a 2 liter Coke bottle, or some Cheetos: sacrificial offerings to the Lady of The List. You need to keep her happy. She has to remember your name.

The biggest cull comes at midnight. You have to get psychologically ready to spend the night there, until the store opens on the day of your approved shopping day. I was number 35.

So begins one of the worst nights of my life.

I’m lying on a dirty sidewalk, cockroaches all around. The smell is horrible: there are no public toilets around and people spend all day queuing there.

It’s eerily quiet. Like all Venezuelan cities, Ciudad Guayana goes into a self-imposed curfew when night falls. And at night it’s cold.

I can’t sleep, so I think about José —not his real name.

José was the son of one of our neighbors. Two or three weeks before I came home, he left his house at 3:00 am to stand at his mandatory cola. He had a baby girl who needed diapers.

An hour or so later, according to witnesses, the GNB (National Guard) arrived, for one of those new “operativos” (crime-fighting raids). Soon, he was in the middle of a free-for-all: some people in the queue pulled out knives. The GNB started shooting and arresting people semi-randomly.

José disappeared. His body was found three days later in some bushes, with three bullet wounds and wearing clothes different from the ones he’d been wearing the last time he was seen. This did not make it onto the news. There’s nothing “new” about it.

Terrified by the realization of what it really means to be queuing in the middle of the night, in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, I allow myself to drown in self-pity for a bit. How did we even reach this point? When did we fall so low? I feel like I’m in a bizarre dream.

Yet I don’t sleep. Not even one minute.

When day breaks, those lucky enough to have cars in their homes will receive the visit of a relative with some breakfast. Others will buy something from the street vendors. Many don’t eat at all.

People in the queue won’t speak to each other unless they are acquaintances. Emotions are running high. Everybody is angry and frustrated. Some voice their frustration out loud, when the GNB is far away.

When Farmatodo finally opens, the guards let people through in groups of ten, to avoid any confusion or coleados. Three groups go in before mine.

Once inside I keep queuing, at least in the air conditioning this time. Some people open a Gatorade or a Platanitos and then leave the empty bottle or package in the shelves.

Finally, at 10:00 AM I am able to pay and trudge home with my treasure: Colgate, mayonnaise and ketchup. 26-hours after the quest had begun the day before.

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    • GNB= Guardia Nacional Bolivariana. The Bolivarian National Guard, a branch of the armed forces. We have the military, navy, aviation and the GNB.

    • As said, thats the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana… I dont know from where you are so I dont know what local examples could apply, its the kind of militarized police force that you have in Spain as Guardia Civil, Italy as Carabineri, France the National Gendarmerie …

      • Nope, this is indeed the most miserable country to live in the world, because we are not at war with anyone, nor we have to endure the onslaught of a terrorist army slaughtering people by hundreds everyday.

  1. I know this comment will not be well received but I don’t think risking your life for toothpaste, mayonnaise, and ketchup is necessary. I can understand spending the night there if you are trying to the get a medication or even diapers but my life is worth a little more than eating with freaking condiments.

    • That’s true, but if you’re depending on the miserable minimum wage (around 15.000 bolivars plus the almost useless cesta-tickets that equal almost other 15.000 bolivars) you’re basically obligated to buy stuff this way, as the bachaquero hoarding monopoly charges around 2.000 bolivars for a kilo of corn flour or even 4.000 for a toothpaste tube or 2.000 for a deodorant bar.

    • From what I hear, goods you get at the controlled prices can be traded for things you really need; if you don’t take what’s on offer, you have no chance to get hold of this substitute “currency”.

  2. A XXI century concentration camp. I’m not making fun of anything here.

    It strikes me as “odd” that the majority overwhelm the clique in “power”. Nobody can be so stupid as to not realize that the majority will take ascendance. Patience is a virtue, peace is a virtue, but you have water building up behind a dam, water that is both patient and peaceful, yet that dam is going to break, and the longer the water has been contained, the more of it there is, the more force it has accumulated, and the greater the devastation of the inevitable torrent of flood waters that sweeps the land.

    There will be freedom, there will be democracy, there will be free markets and the free flow of capital. The sooner, the better.

  3. “I’m lying on a dirty sidewalk, cockroaches all around. The smell is horrible: there are no public toilets around and people spend all day queuing there. It’s eerily quiet. Like all Venezuelan cities, Ciudad Guayana goes into a self-imposed curfew when night falls. And at night it’s cold.”

    This is what I fear when I see socialist candidates running for any public office anywhere, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Colombia, France, the US. I don’t trust governments. I don’t trust “well-intentioned” socialists, but I trust that other people will improve their lives if only the government get out of the way, and that society as a whole will improve as collateral effect of the action of millions of individuals improving their lives freely.

    Unfortunately, people in Latin America don’t fear what I fear, they fear the wrong enemies: rich people, the jews, the US, multinationals like Coca-Cola, privatizations, free-trade agreements, low taxes, unregulated prices.

    And that’s the result you get for fearing what you should like and for liking what you should fear: to lie on a dirty sidewalk, cockroaches all around, sharing with them the crumbs falling from the Chavistas’ table. It’s incredibly sad and absurd.

    Ps: By “you” I don’t mean the author of this excellent report, but the brainwashed ignorant people who voted for these guys.

    • I think you are oversimplifying things, to the point of sounding like those [“brainwashed, ignorant people”] who believe that it would all be butterflies and rainbows if you would just let the market take care of everything. It would perhaps be helpful to stop throwing the word “socialism” around, since it is such a large umbrella term that, unless it is placed within a specific context, it could mean almost anything.

      Referring to chavistas as ignorant and brainwashed (that’s roughly 80% of the electorate in 1998, mind you) is not only morally questionable and intellectually lazy, it is also counterproductive. It will do nothing to help move the country out of the crisis, but instead keep creating a fertile ground for a new wave of -istas to come up with the “Socialism of the XXII Century”, take hold of power and run the country off a cliff – yet again.

      It baffles me that it is now 2016 and some people are still unable to accept that there is no such a thing as a perfect economic system, that you actually can take good policies from both capitalism (free enterprise and market, competition, private property) and those commonly associated with the term ‘socialism’ (reasonable government regulation, consumer protection, wealth redistribution, welfare) and combine them in a way that works for your country.

      • Well, your speech is what I’ve been hearing since being a child in Latin America, more of the same, and it’s depressing because it as if we all were “hijos of Chavez” forever. We will keep electing those folks for generations to come: more Cristinas, more Dilmas, more Maduros, more Evos. There was even an article here in CC supporting the Bolivarian candidate in Peru, a person affiliated with Foro de Sao Paulo, a couple months ago! Do you really trust a government bureaucrat to do “wealth redistribution”? Or to manage well hospitals? If yes, than you should support the revolution, because they are doing welfare and wealth redistribution like no other, and I heard that Tiby will run for president after Maduro with the same platform, vote for her, just to be disappointed again, again, and again.

        “and combine them in a way that works for your country.”

        I know the way that works for any country in the region: socialists out! Until that happens, we will live in of the poorest continents in the world. But hey, we have rotten hospitals managed by the state and wealth redistribution, we should be happy!

  4. The root of the problem is that Venezuelans’ salaries are pegged to an artificial exchange rate which is vastly different from the real exchange rate traded in the black market. This black market rate is used to price goods and services. The result is that Venezuelans can’t afford to buy anything not price controlled but it isn’t the fault of the sellers. It’s the distortion created by an official exchange rate which isn’t real as only preferential people can access it.

    The socialist dream of low controlled prices is just that- an unsustainable dream built on high oil prices and debts. The govt subsidized almost everything through the exchange rate including food, fuel, electricity, medicine, airfares and cars. Even when oil price was in triple digits the govt could not balance its books and had to borrow heavily. Now the pigeons have come home to roost so to speak. Printing bolivars to try to bridge the shortfall compounded the problem by devaluing the currency.

    Correction will be painful but Venezuelans can’t continue to live in economic isolation sheltered from real world prices. The govt is basically importing goods to sell at a huge loss. The private sector needs preferential dollars from the govt to import goods and sell at prices locals can afford and they aren’t getting much. It is a huge unsustainable mess and knocking black market sellers for sabotage and profiteering misses the point.

    With the Maduro regime insisting that the economic problems are the result of an economic war and not their own incompetence this isn’t going to end well. Either the regime is disposed or mass starvation is possible. However this regime seems willing to cling on to power at any cost while doing nothing to correct the economy so the result will not be pretty.

  5. Great piece Victoria! I was thinking on doing the part two of my “money is useless” post, since the lines have gotten so much worst you can no longer use it as a reference. This post fulfills that role very well, so I wont have to. I’ve done my fair share of lines at this point, and I certify every word in this post. This is how things are now people, and sadly they are gonna get worst, at least in the short term.

    I wish I had kinder words for you, all I can say is hang in there, you are not alone.

    Saludos desde Unare


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