Ahead of the General Strike, long lines for full-price items

It used to be people would line up for hours for price-controlled staples. But as a 48-hour General Strike launches today, panic buying crashed head first against family budget realities.

“Thank God my daughter paid my credit card last month”, a woman in her 70’s said to me, as she searched for her card in her purse in a long supermarket line in El Cafetal, the iconic middle-class Caracas neighborhood. In her car, she was carrying bags with ham, cheese, two bottles of ketchup and tomatoes. The store was crammed, with a 45 minute line for the cashier. Similar scenes could be seen in in supermarkets across the area. With the 48 hour General Strike looming, people were stocking up.

These weren’t the usual lines you’ve been reading about for years, though. This was different. Lines had died down at supermarkets in recent months, because there just weren’t any price controlled goods worth lining up for to be had. What we saw ahead of the two-day strike was different, though: long lines for regular, not price-controlled goods that people usually just can’t afford.

“I’m just buying some vegetables and juice. I found some smoked porkchops for cheap. It’s not much, but it’s something, I don’t want to be caught off guard… if something happens,” an older man explained to me. He lives with his wife, but his sons called him from abroad to make sure he went out to buy some food, just in case.

Panic buying —or “nervous shopping” as the telling Spanish phrase has it— is nothing new for caraqueños. But we’ve never seen compras nerviosas at a time when family budgets were this stretched.  

There’s no money to buy extra food. This is the worst time by far, when all the money from the last quincena [pay check] is long gone: what can we do?

“A few years ago I would stock up on canned food, but that’s too expensive now,” a thirtysomething mom carrying one of her daughters in her arms told me. “I’m just trying to buy some cookies for the kids, in the end they’re what matters the most to me.”

“And with this heat. Esto es de locos,” an old lady screamed at me as she stood in line in a supermarket where the air conditioner wasn’t working. There was no priority line for senior citizens there, everyone was crowding up the aisles: grandpas, women with small babies, pregnant ladies. None of their shopping carts were full, but at least “it was something.”

“There’s no money to buy extra food. This is the worst time by far, when all the money from the last quincena [pay check] is long gone: what can we do?” the mom asks me, visibly worried.

The chaos wasn’t limited to supermarkets: banks were also crammed full. At the end of the afternoon, a security guard in a big bank in El Cafetal stopped allowing any more customers into the branch.

“There’s no cash,” a motorizado [biker] explained to me as he was leaving the bank. “If you want to take money out you have to wait for someone to make a deposit.”

With news that public transport workers would add themselves to the general strike, long lines also hit gas stations, with drivers waiting patiently to pump some. “I don’t know… ¿A dónde vamos a correr si algo pasa?” a guy told me with a gallows-humory chuckle. “My wife asked me to fill up the tank for the next days, but I don’t see the point.”

The usual Caracas traffic jams weren’t helping helping the drivers anxiously trying to go to a store or get home early. “I heard that the U.S. Embassy said that you have to have food for two weeks”, a young lady said to me, worried.

In Farmatodo, the big pharmacy chain, there was no line for medicine, all the clients were waiting to pay in long queues, most of them carrying water bottles and soda.

“In my house, we’re fresh out of food, even for today. Estamos jodidos. My mom knew that this was going to happen, but we’re not ready”, a young guy was explaining to his girlfriend as they were waiting at the pharmacy to get some water and coke.

“I’m here buying water, my mom is looking for some candles. We have to be ready, the strike is for 48 hours, but, maybe, it can be longer”, a twentysomething girl said to me at the Farmatodo line.

There was a mixed of tension and boredom in these lines. A kind of certainty that “something” is about to happen. In Caracas, there was no calm before the storm.

Gaby J. Miller

Gaby is a Caraqueña steeped in 90's pop culture who likes to talk and write politics.