Elderly Venezuelans struggle to survive on $1.50 a month

After decades of hard work, senior citizens have to stand in lines for hours to collect their pension and perform miracles to buy food and medicine. Most of the time, it’s not enough and some admit they’ve even begged on the street.

Photos: Joan González

At 11 a.m. of that Thursday, there were 250 people in line at the Banco Bicentenario in downtown Anaco. Under the beating sun, their faces twisted by hunger, some anxious by the institution’s lethargy, others resigned to return home empty-handed. All queueing up, as if they were cattle, some even dragging their walkers: this is what the elderly go through when they try to collect their pension.

In Venezuela, the pension system is shot through with indifference and humiliation. In December 2011, late president Hugo Chávez created the great Misión en Amor Mayor, with the goal of providing social security to those who didn’t have any savings in the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security (IVSS), established in 1944.

But far from social justice, collecting their pensions turns is agony. In an economic stage devoured by hyperinflation, money vanishes with the purchase of a few items, and the so-called pension is merely a tip: Bs. 347,914 a month. A buck fifty, at the parallel rate. 

That morning, complaining of a severe pain in her left leg, María del Carmen Jaramillo told me that she’d been coming early to the bank for eight days to stand in line for eight hours in order to collect her pension. But the amount of people is such that cash soon ran out. She already sensed it, just like in previous days.

As we talked, a younger neighbor stood in line for her. Despite the hostile environment, people were keeping order. Some had already eaten, others needed to collect the cash to eat. That morning, they were told to wait, because the bank might receive banknotes.

In Venezuela, the pension system is characterized by indifference and humiliation.

At 84, María lives alone in La Línea street, Anaco. She had no children, but she says God is with her, an expression she used with resignation in view of her reality, defined by scarcity and disease. There are days that the pain in her leg forces her to take to the street and beg for money. When she can’t find any or pain beats her, she’s forced to endure.

She sees a bleak future ahead. The pension is just enough for a couple of days and she doubts the situation will improve with this government.

In Miranda avenue, a few blocks from the bank, Alberto Pérez and Régulo Manzanares approach me, eager to be interviewed as well. Alberto tells me that he gets by selling plastic recipients outside stores. He must take care of two of his grandchildren, so he must make an effort to work at 67 years old. Some weeks, he makes enough to buy food, but there are days when he returns home empty-handed.

Meanwhile, Régulo, sitting with a kilo of pasta in one hand, says: “We have to live like beggars when we grow old.”

Mercedes Fernández, pensioner for the past six years, used to be a seamstress and she was able to provide for her family that way. Now, at 79, she remembers decades past with sorrow; she rented a place in Caracas, but when her marriage ended, she took her things and left with her children to Anaco. She’s hypertensive and diabetic. She takes potassium losartan (Bs. 285,000) and Diaformina Plus (Bs. 145,000), and whenever she gets the chance to buy several boxes, she checks how much she has.

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And when her pills run out, she has to endure the pain.

The issue with banks is that, although the money is deposited, they can’t pay it in full. Pensioners have to stand in line several times, many of them in vain. And when in luck, they fill their pockets with enough cash for a baguette.

“I want to live out my days in happiness,” says Fernández, “with food and my products for personal hygiene.” A fair demand that the State chooses to ignore.

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