It was close to 7pm on a Tuesday after a day fighting with the Internet guys and working. Though we’d been putting it off and my endurance levels were running low, we had to go to the grocery store. It was that, or eat crackers with ketchup and mustard à la Tom Hanks in The Terminal.
It was a race against the clock, because we only get water in my apartment building from 8pm till 9 pm and I could not live without that shower.
When you go to a store in a hurry, you don’t even expect to find price-controlled stuff. That wasn’t the point. After quickly rounding up some non-price controlled goods, we went straight to the check-out and got ready to pay.
My husband, Carlos, handed his debit card and ID and I started doing a mental checklist of all the things I had to do between 8 and 9pm and then:
Cashier: “Le puedo facturar dos Harina P.A.N.”
Cashier: “Can I put two packs of Harina P.A.N. on your receipt?”
Anabella: “You have Harina P.A.N.?”
Cashier: “Shhhhh… pero con prudencia. You can have two each…”
The cashier told us the supermarket had received Harina P.A.N. two days in a row and some was left over after the morning cola. “We then sell it at closing time, pero con prudencia [with discretion] para que no digan que estamos acaparando”.
Carlos handed his debit card and ID once again and I handed my cestaticket and ID.
Just then, we saw a couple of buyers with two Harina P.A.N in their hands rushing to the check-out. Then, some more. We looked at each other nervously.
Carlos: “Are we going to end up without any Harina?”
Cashier: “Tranquilo, it’s a sure thing, you’re already paying”
Anabella: “Pero…. ¿are you sure?”
Cashier: “Tranquilos, the guy in the back has them”
Between the two of us we paid a total of BsF 760 for four kilos of Harina P.A.N. (that is, US$ 0,76 at an 1.000 BsF/US$). Carlos’s receipt was marked 7:30pm and mine 7:32pm. We couldn’t believe. “Bernal parece que cumplió,” we said, with a smirk.
The second we paid, we kept on asking the cashier: “so, where do we pick it up?”
After a minute that seemed like an eternity, the cashier called a bagger and he grabbed our cart and said “denme las facturas, yo se las busco.”
We followed him and he went into the office of the encargado and told us to wait outside. We watched from a window and saw them moving our bags around.
Carlos: “Think he’s stealing our grocery shopping?”
Anabella: “Hope not.”
We got our cart back and saw they had hidden the Harina P.A.N. under the other stuff. I discreetly checked to see if all of our bags were there and noticed our receipts were missing. Carlos joked: “They must be hiding the evidence”.
Guy’s a lawyer!
The bagger had forgotten our receipts in the office. He looked for them, gave them to me and we headed out.
It was an interesting feeling. Even though I had paid for it, I felt like a smuggler and walked in slow motion towards the exit, while looking all around me thinking “mantén la harina escondida, be discreet”.
Never had a totally legal transaction felt so wrong to me. I kept having to reassure myself “no hicimos nada malo”. Carlos, ever the legalist, kept saying “we didn’t do anything illegal”.
When the Central Government approved the Ley de Costos y Precios Justos in 2011, my boss said something that keeps on resonating in mind: “con esto -and most other economic policy laws of chavismo- no hay zona de seguridad”. Even when you think you are complying with the law, the government can use any argument to say that you’re not.
The supermarket simply had Harina P.A.N. available, but the government could claim “acaparamiento”; and I had legally bought my Harina P.A.N. and will turn it into arepas and bollitos at some point, but the government could claim “bachaqueo”.
I got home, Carlos put away the stuff we bought and I rushed to the shower. I felt dirty. Instead of enjoying my short shower -though longer than a 3-minute tapara bath- I kept on repeating myself “a lo que hemos llegado”.
I got to the kitchen, rearrange some stuff in the freezer and starting washing our plates from lunch and repeated, once more and out loud, “a lo que hemos llegado”.
Just like every night, I checked the “Los Abadi” WhastApp chat. After reviewing photos of cute animals and awesome food my sister and mom tend to share on the chat -and don’t get me started on our Instagram chat-, I said I had bought some Harina P.A.N. at the controlled price.
After a “Wow!”, they asked “¿cómo hiciste?”.
“Con prudencia,” I answered.
Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.