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.”

Carlos: “¿Qué?”

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.

 

11 COMMENTS

  1. Beatifully told story , right to the very ending …….and it replicates perfectly the mood and atmosphere of these buying experiences…….!! Kudos !!

  2. It is common in totalitarian systems to force everyone into illegality, even if it is only getting more than 6.8 bolivars for a dollar. That way, there is a veneer of legality when they choose to persecute you.

    Vaclav Havel wrote about this extensively.

    • This is the flip-side of that. When, weirdly, you find yourself doing things legally it feels even sketchier than the usual system!

      • Yikes! Commerce makes one feel “like a criminal” when all they are doing is buying a couple kilos of corn. I take for granted the box of Frosted Flakes and a box of k-cups of my favorite coffee for work.

        I’ve read where people are smuggling SPAM and other canned goods into Caracas to avoid starvation via embassy contacts. My one and only US embassy contact was so happy to be back in America after spending (too long) a time in Venezuela, that the first thing she did when she arrived home… had a huge breakfast at a local place outside and all the coffee they could bring to the table.

        Little things like eating outside w/o fear of bodily harm or getting robbed in broad daylight are things us “gringos” take for granted. Not every place is safe in every country, but some places are dangerous everywhere you go.

        Just as she left, she emptied what stuff she no longer needed (can’t carry milk on planes ) and gave the rest to one of the people who helped her with language issues when she was in country.

        Her donation to the woman was 1/2 kilo of rice, 2 liters of cooking oil, and 3 kilos of PAN she had been saving/hoarding. The woman was in tears when she got the bag. Ironically, these all came to her by way of Amazon from the US.

    • Quite true. In blog comments, one will occasionally find apologists for the Cuban regime state that Cuba is low-crime. Yes, a tourist or a local is less likely to robbed, assaulted, or murdered in Cuba than in Venezuela, which would in that sense make Cuba “low crime.” But as ordinary Cubans have to break the law on a daily basis in order to survive, in that sense Cuba is anything but “low-crime.”

  3. Great post. Here’s why I think it is great. A central feature of dictatorships is arbitrariness of the law. One of the symptoms of living under conditions where the law is arbitrary is a fear that one will be prosecuted, even if one has done nothing apparently wrong.

    Venezuelans are familiar with the idea that the legal system is corrupt. But your article points to something qualitatively different from a merely corrupt legal system. It reveals I think the feelings of a person who is living in a place transitioning from an authoritarian system to a totalitarian one. My sense is, that feeling you described….after a while, it becomes normal, and regular. “Con prudencia” applies to shopping. Then it will apply to conversations. Then it will apply to whom people associate with…con prudencia becomes a mode of survival. Journalists in Venezuela have lived with this “con prudencia” for years and it has had devastating consequences for the press, but now it is broadening its scope.

    Whether the regime survives long enough that society will become totally infected with this con prudencia, I don’t know. But you have keyed onto a very significant feeling, which I think is something somewhat new in this context. That feeling is a survival mechanism for living in a dictatorship.

    Your piece brought a very interesting article by Masha Gessen to mind about the definition of the prisoner of conscience (don’t let the reference to Trump in the title discourage you; it is mainly about places where people do their grocery shopping nervously, so to speak). Greetings shoppers! Today, you are all potentially prisoners of conscience!:

    http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/donald-trumps-political-prisoners

  4. This is the sort of thing I wish I could share with friends and family outside, except that they just wouldn’t “get it”. These experiences are so far outside the realm of normality that it would be like asking the outsiders to believe in witches and goblins and telling them to believe that in our Venezuelan alternate reality they are real.

  5. Reminds me of the way we used to buy illegal fireworks downtown each December: “chamo, tienes fosforitos?” (the guy’s eyes would glance to one side, then another, then he gave a slight nod).

  6. But hey, if the thing looks like a dictatorship, sounds like a dictatorship, and even smells like a dictatorship, then it’s an “imperfect democracy”.

    It’s just a matter of waiting 50 more years so “people get so tired from chavismo” that they’ll gladly vote 99,99% for whatever comes from the acronym that opposses them in that year, what are some thousands of lives wasted away anyway?

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