Photos: Mario Pérez
On Friday, August 18, President Nicolás Maduro announced a set of economic measures that simply makes no sense at all. Among many important changes, the most controversial would be that the minimum wage is to rise from BsF. 3,000,000 to BsF. 180,000,000 (BsS. 1.800). Aware this would help bankrupt what little remains of the private sector, Maduro pledged the government would cover the entire private sector wage bill for three months, while also somehow vowing to bring the budget deficit down to zero.
Opposition leaders summoned a 24 hour national strike, which implied that no one was to move from their house on Tuesday 21.
Given the announcements, opposition leaders summoned a 24 hour national strike, which implied that no one was to move from their house on Tuesday 21, in order to protest against the measures. Yet, the streets told another story. People are undoubtedly unhappy with the measures, but a national strike didn’t seem like a convenient option. Why? An array of reasons that go from the fact that people need to eat and make money within a broken economy; to the declining trust deposited in opposition leaders and political parties. It’s only logical to assume that this strike was going to be a huge bust.
I called various business owners to confirm whether people had gone to work or abided the strike in Maracaibo. I also wanted to know how they felt the economic measures would affect them and their businesses. I started by reviewing different media outlets, which allowed me to assess the difference between what I saw and what I read.
I have to say: I found a huge disparity between the streets I saw and the ones I read about. Opposition politicians stated that the streets were empty in support of the strike; however, upon closer inspection, it was easy to tell that even though most of the businesses were closed, it wasn’t because of the strike, but rather because they had to update their systems in order to cope with the change of currency.
Even though most of the businesses were closed, it wasn’t because of the strike.
The first business owner I spoke to is Juana, a marble workshop owner. All of her employees arrived to work on time the day of the strike, which means public transport was working. Nonetheless, her store was not open due to system updates that had to be installed. She stated that in order to overcome these measures she had to come to an agreement with her workers “because of Venezuelan labor laws, workers are so well protected that they have a huge say in the company’s actions, as much as an owner, or perhaps even more”. She stated that this strike made no sense for her, because at the end of the day owners still have to pay their workers.
Barney, a hardware store owner, told me that 15% of his workers didn’t go to work today. He opened his shop to assess budgets because of system updates. When I spoke to him he was coming out of a meeting with other business owners, where they were trying to reach similar or equal terms in order to stay in business. He talked to me a little bit about his plan: adjustment of salaries, imports reevaluation, but most importantly, how many workers are going to be kept if the cash flow isn’t as expected?
Ramona, a construction contractor, says that all of her workers showed up to work that day, although certainly not on time. As Juana, she didn’t open her store because she needed a system update, which—it’s worth noticing—can take a lot of time. Her perception of the strike is that it doesn’t work if people are in dire need of money in order to buy food. What is her plan to deal with the measures? In order to do that, she has to let some of her employees go.
The strike has done nothing for this city. What’s done real harm is the currency conversion.
Finally, I spoke to a gas station owner called Fulgencio, who stated that his “isleros” got there on time, even before he did. For him, sales proceeded within the normal range that day. He is one of the few who had no choice in this matter, as gas sales are a basic need, therefore it is mandatory that he opens his doors every day. “The strike has done nothing for this city. What’s done real harm is the currency conversion”. However, he feels that eventually he will have to sell his gas station because of the minimum wage increase. He doesn’t trust the government covering the salaries of the workers.
So far, it seems the national strike has failed. Was this strike set up to fail from the very beginning? If the opposition leaders really want civic rallies they need to plan them really well, or instead, people will choose one of the most basic instincts: to eat.
*No real names were used, we changed them to protect the identities of our sources.