Learning that you’re going to be a parent is an incomparable thrill. Billions of people have experienced it, but somehow it feels like you’re the first.

When my wife and I learned the past November that she was pregnant, we decided to hold on to that feeling for a couple of weeks, waiting before telling the family. We wanted some time to enjoy it by ourselves, and to go to the first doctor’s appointment. Those first few minutes we talked about names, and changes to our apartment. However, after the first rush of excitement subsided, I began to worry.

“There’s someone we have to tell right away. We have to call Luis”, I interrupted my wife.

No, Luis is not a relative, or a close friend.

“Call him, right now”, she said.

I made the call.

“Luis, mira, we’re going to need diapers, lots of them”.

Am I ashamed that our bachaquero was the first person to hear the good news? Not really.

He wasn’t always a bachaquero, of course. We met him when he was working as a freelance motorbike messenger. A grumpy sexagenarian, he always complains that whatever you’re asking for is a hassle, or that the address is unsafe and he’ll get his bike stolen. But he says so while grabbing his helmet and writing down the details. And he always comes through.

From being a messenger in the office I worked in, over the past couple of years Luis has become my family’s trusted bachaquero on wheels, the guy you turn to to help you find anything, anywhere. When my father in-law had cancer, he crisscrossed Caracas for more than a year, finding drugs and medical supplies. We knew we couldn’t face what was coming without him.

In November, I set out to build my very own Maginot Line. But unlike the French line –built to keep the Germans out– mine would keep the economic crisis out my baby’s life. My fortifications and turrets would be diapers, wet wipes, creams, baby formula and medicines. The lazy French took nine years to build their useless barrier. Mine would have to be built in under seven months.

Given enough time, building a stash of these scarce goods couldn’t be that hard. It was just a matter of being relentless, of leaving no stone unturned. Right?

The first item on the list were diapers. I reckoned —naïvely— that we could buy enough for a year. Luis would call me every week to tell me if the bachaqueros in Petare had any, and what size and price. Sizes appear and disappear all the time. Whatever you find, you have to buy them if you can, to barter for a different size in the future.

To buy in stores, at controlled prices, you need to build a network of family and friends to buy things for you when they get the chance. By the time I got out from work at 4 pm, whatever diapers or formula had arrived that day were long gone. The network also serves as lookouts, your intelligence service. But finding something is just one part of the struggle.

Like that day I got a text from a friend: a pharmacy on the other side of the city had diapers. It was a Tuesday, meaning it was my turn to buy according to the last digit of my cédula. When I got there they told me that the medical report and ultrasound I had brought —yes, you have to show those to prove you need diapers— were no longer enough. My wife, by then 38-weeks pregnant and in bed, had to be there too. These modern-day Saint Thomases needed to see the belly to believe. I argued my way to buying the allotted quota, two packs of 20 diapers, and left the store despondent.

With many items disappearing periodically, I started to notice how the hoarder mentality was taking over my mind: buy as much as your pockets allows whenever you find anything. When you don’t know when or if you might get another chance, that mentality is very hard to resist.

As worried as I was about diapers, my real nightmares involved medicines.

Months before the baby’s birth we talked to a pediatrician and asked what were the most common drugs and supplies we might need. The doctor’s secretary had a hard time understanding why we were making an appointment if there was no patient to examine. She looked at us as if we were crazy people. The pediatrician didn’t understand either at first; after a flurry of questions from us, she thought we were conducting an audition of pediatricians for our baby. Once I explained our fears, she exclaimed “Ah, of course!”, and started writing a list in her pad.

She’s still our pediatrician; I suspect she thinks we’re a little unhinged.

The hoarding urge is especially strong with the most essential things. I would walk the aisles in pharmacies, and take any drug from the shelves with the word “pediatric” on the package, without caring what it was for. Each time, a little part of me wondered if it was wrong.

Did I take that from someone who might need it more? It’s a valid ethical question. It’s also a paradox, since the only reason I’m forced to ponder the issue is the unethical choices made by others: powerful people who clearly have no such qualms.

What’s wrong is that the question even comes up.

During these months, I felt like we are all in a kind of arms race. A government that thrived by dividing the country into bitterly opposed sides has now managed to pit all Venezuelans against each other: competing for that last box of diapers or milk, that last pediatric pill, that last box of a life-extending chemotherapy drug and, as I recently found out, for that last shot of the tuberculosis vaccine for newborns.

It’s not a simple matter of money or class. It’s not something you can solve by throwing money at the problem — unless you have enough to fly private to Aruba and buy everything you need boliburgués-style, which I don’t.

Still, I count myself among the lucky ones. Part of my Maginot Line was imported, thanks to a friend who travelled to Panamá and brought us drugs. Nothing too exotic: even pediatric acetaminophen and folic acid have gone missing from the shelves.

Relatives living abroad sent whatever was allowed by couriers. A  cousin was selling stuff her toddler no longer needs, and gave me a good price. The cradle me and my brothers used as kids, a sturdy wooden classic, is now back in business.

Between my buyer network, Luis and myself, we managed to find about five months’ worth of diapers, but the sizes aren’t very logically distributed. (Here’s hoping the baby doesn’t poop very much between the third and the sixth month.) We found most of the drugs, but not all. My Maginot Line is there, with a Belgium-sized hole on one side. And we all know how that turned out.

During this ordeal –which is just starting: vaccines are next– my mind kept going back to the issue of choices, just like the one I faced on the aisles of pharmacies. Because what brought us here were not mistakes. It wasn’t incompetence. No one forgot to order raw materials for diapers, or to import chemotherapy drugs sorely needed by the most vulnerable.

These are voluntary, deliberate choices made by people in the top floors of ministries or in Miraflores. A choice was made to not import tons of life-saving drugs, by someone. Just like someone choose not to change a broken system. Someone chose to pay the foreign debt and someone chose not to ask for help making those payments. Someone chose to actually sanction the National Assembly for asking for humanitarian assistance.

This supply crisis is no mistake. Thanks, but no thanks is a policy choice.

20 COMMENTS

  1. It’s not incompetence, it was a deliberate act to “prove a point”: That the regime could “force into its kness” any transnational because “socialism was superior”:

    “HIGH

    0800 NO-HEALTH

    I resume a long talk with two of my expert and still red? Sources. Two solvent and competent professionals in medicine: “…One flawed interpretation of our ideology takes us today to be a country excluded in the world of the greatest world’s pharmaceuticals. It doesn’t matter if they were swiss, german, french, american, italian or from another country. Those are global realities, not representing a nationality, not from the made-up economic war. First, we thought that if we didn’t pay a little debt we would force them to kneel. Year after year, that compromise grow up and today it is a “monstrosity of debt”. And we couldn’t force anyone to kneel…””

    ////

    No es incompetencia, fué un acto deliberado para “probar un punto”: Que el régimen podía “arrodillar” a cualquier transnacional porque “el socialismo es superior”:

    “ALTO
    0800 SINSALUD:

    Resumo un largo diálogo con dos de mis fuentes expertas y ¿aún rojitas?. Son dos solventes y competentes profesionales de la medicina: “…Una pésima interpretación de nuestro ideario ideológico nos lleva hoy a ser patria excluida para el mundo de las grandes farmacéuticas del globo. No importa si es suiza, alemana, francesa, americana, italiana o de cualquier otro país. Ellas son realidades globales, no son representantes de nacionalidad alguna, ni de una inventada guerra económica. Primero, pensamos que si no le pagábamos una pequeña deuda las poníamos de rodilla. Año tras año, ese compromiso fue creciendo y hoy es una “monstruosidad de deuda”. Y no pusimos de rodilla a nadie… “”

    http://runrun.es/runrunes-de-bocaranda/runrunes/253670/los-runrunes-de-bocaranda-de-hoy-17-03-2016.html

  2. Legit question: Why do vennies now INSIST they they ABSOLUTELY need DISPOSABLE diapers? Many previous generations were raised on cloth diapers (which are now better than ever), but anytime this suggestion is mentioned I hear about water shortages, soap shortages etc etc that makes me question the legitimacy of their other complaints. I have family members and friends who COULD ask for reusable (cloth etc) diapers from the US, but NOOOOO, they would rather continue to despair about the difficulty of getting disposable diapers and politely decline the offer of reusable diapers such as: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01B4S7FTA?psc=1

    • As for the legitimacy of the complaints: The water coming into my home is so dirty (yellowish, on a good day) that I can no longer wash my work shirts, because they invariably come out stained with dirt. I’m spending a freaking fortune on dry cleaners. The white undershirts I still wash at home: those are now permanently light yellow. But that’s obviously not the worst problem: To wash our baby’s clothes, we are using filtered drinking water, and washing it by hand, for obvious reasons. And yes, there’s usually no detergent to be found in supermarkets, you have to buy from bachaqueros.

      But all that is actually irrelevant. The real issue is not why people “insist” on using disposable diapers. The issue is why we can’t find something as basic as disposable diapers? Surely you can understand this. We’re not talking about caviar here. Diapers. Freaking diapers.

      I mean, do you really think the problem is that Venezuelans are too irrational or picky? That they choose to despair?

      • Pedro , I asked my wife the same question , long time ago when our kids needed diapers we used cloth diapers , washed them and reused them ( there were diaper cleaning services which would pick the soiled diapers one day and return then in a couple of days ) , why not go back to the old ways……she answered quit simply because not only the water but the detergents needed to wash the diapers are often in very short supply …….cant go back to the old days…….!!

        Now we have to deal with the difficulty of findind adult diapers for a very old relative, my wife is thinking of finding materials that might allow her to fashion reusable diapers for that relative……., they are supposed to exist somewhere in the US but even there they are not easily found.!! stands to reason ordinary adult diapers arent that costly and its easier to buy them in any corner drug store…!!

        • Molicare and Abenas are now available on Amazon. Seems thediapersuperstore.com and the other similarly useful web stores “got Amazoned”.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I would think having both cloth and disposables would be a good option: if water is available use cloth, if water is not available use disposables. Perhaps water might be unexpectedly unavailable for several days, or the baby’s skin might not respond well to the wash-but the baby’s clothes are washed in (filtered) water, so the skin sensitivity issue would not seem to be the problem. If it is the case, why do you believe that the combined cloth+disposables option is simply not reasonable?

        • Time is another constraint, a couple that’s got to work often doesn’t have enough time to keep washing pooped diapers.

          • True, good point. But by the same token, the amount of time that is spent looking for disposables would seem to suggest that the combined cloth+disposables option is worth considering. Note that some parents in countries that have full access to disposables choose to use cloth diapers in order to be eco-friendly, to keep chemicals off the kids’ skin, and whatever crazy nonsense they make up. The combined use of cloth+disposables seems to be one of the few ways new parents might slightly improve the Kafka-meets-the-twilight-zone conditions of modern Venezuela, but all I have seen is pure rejection of this proposal, even as a gift.

    • When we do get water, it is dirty. Have the same problems as Pedro Rosas. We’ve been having a lot of rain, but water is still rationed. We don’t get water from Sunday to late Wed. early Thu. By the time we get water the tank in the building is empty so we have to wait until it has an appropriate level, so water doesn’t get pumped to the apartments until Thu afternoon. That’s 4-1/2 days without water, so we get the one from our tank a bit in the morning and a bit in the evening and obviously we’re not allowed to do laundry ….. and this is in a nice area in Eastern Caracas. I haven’t been able to buy detergent since Jan this year. Luckily I had enough stored, but my inventory is running pretty low.

    • Let me rephrase the question:

      Why do chavistas insist on wanting to live in the 21st century without having to work at all?

        • “Everybody” sounds like polyhedron, man, leave me out of that sack, because I’ve never asked for free stuff in my entire life, and much less from any government.

          Only the chanvistas wanted that, because being a blood-sucking oportunist parasite is a core part of being chavista.

          Those who claim themselves to be hardcore anti-chavistas and still want free stuff from the government just because they’re venezuelan? Those are chavistas too, it’s just that they don’t want to admit it.

  3. Congratulations on your baby! But reading about your ‘hoarding quest’ makes me sad while admiring everyone’s resilience in the face of such day-to-day hardship. When I see how my 8-month-old niece uses nappies, I count our blessings!

    If there is anyway I can help your family from 18,000km away, please do not hesitate to ask.

  4. “the hoarder mentality was taking over my mind… [the] government … has now managed to pit all Venezuelans against each other: competing for that last box of diapers or milk…”

    Living under an oppressive regime de-moralizes people. They learn to survive by extreme selfishness. When the Nazi concentration camps were liberated, many of the inmates had become nearly as repulsive as their captors: trusting no one, grovelling to anyone they thought could give them something, stealing anything they could get, even from other prisoners.

    Such damage takes a long time to repair, if it ever is. Damaged children may never recover.

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