Fear and Hoarding on the Baby Trail '16

In Venezuela these days, having a baby is a logistical feat you can only manage by plunging head first into the murky waters of the bachaquero economy.

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.

Pedro Rosas Rivero

Pedro Rosas Rivero is an Economist living in Caracas, with graduate studies in Economics, and Politics. He wishes we could talk more about policy than politics. News addict, and incurable books junkie.