Making a Buck Off the Quarantine

The weight of the black market in what’s left of the Venezuelan economy has been growing for years. But the pandemic added new trades—as honest as the circumstances allow

It's a way of living, and everyone is in it.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

As it is with most everyone still trying to make a living in Venezuela during these pandemic times, there’s a main trade and a secondary source of income for Juan Carlos Salazar—and all of the names on this piece have been changed for reasons that will soon become apparent.

See, if you ask him what he does for a living, “handyman” is the thing that describes it best. He has his own (small) maintenance and repair company, with which he services several apartment buildings in eastern Caracas. But when the going gets rough, he just smuggles fuel, right here, in the middle of the capital. This is something that he has never stopped doing after he first picked up on it with the recent nationwide shortage. At the time of writing, there’s another shortage going on in states like Aragua and Bolívar; Caracas itself is still supplied, but we can see the dark clouds from here.

And Juan Carlos is ready.

“I first do it for myself,” he says. “I live in El Valle (western Caracas), and if I have no fuel, I can’t get to work, all my clients are in the east. So I try to remain well supplied. What exceeds my personal needs is what I sell.”

Right now, he’s just keeping a stock and when the time comes to sell, it’s only to people he knows personally, or swaps with business associates: “For example, someone in the construction business. They’re doing renovations somewhere? I supply them with fuel free of charge, but now they have to let me in and share the business with me, we do the renovations together. Or they have a job offer somewhere and they can’t take it, so they pass it along to me, but now I know I have to get them fuel free of charge. And that’s how we deal and that’s how we survive.”

All this socializing and traveling around exposes him (and, thus, his family) to the risks of COVID-19, but it isn’t much of a choice, he says, when the only options are going hungry or just taking advantage of an opportunity:

“It’s a pal I have at the gas station in La Bandera (right next to El Valle), he owns the station. When the gas semi truck comes in, the first thing he does is take out fuel for his truck, 200 liters, literally as soon as the tank wagon arrives. Of course, he has to pay the National Guard officer supervising the station; it’s an arrangement that the two of them have. Only after that’s done, they start selling fuel to customers.”

Of those 200 liters, Juan Carlos gets 60 that he sometimes pays with money and sometimes with service. That’s the fuel that he later trades in eastern Caracas, only in greens, only in cash.

“Of course, he has to pay the National Guard officer supervising the station; it’s an arrangement that the two of them have. Only after that’s done, they start selling fuel to customers.”

This activity he’s doing is described in Article 62 of the Venezuelan Law Against Corruption, as a crimecorruption itselfthat needs an active party (the officer who gets paid) and a passive party (the ones paying); it’s punished with jail time, but only in the realm of what-should-be. If you’re one of those people who spend eight or ten hours at a time in line, just to fill up your car, this is probably infuriating, but Juan Carlos has two kids and a rough time trying to make ends meet with a back-breaking, full-time day job. He doesn’t get too deep in the morals of the trade, though. For him, this is about having the opportunity to reinforce his income in a context of normalized backdoor dealings, all while making sure his facemask is strapped on tight.

“That’s a source of fuel, but there are others,” he goes. “Right around where I live, there’s a mototaxi line, and those boys aren’t making much money with the quarantine and the blockades, so what they do is wake up very early and do the line at the gas station. They fill their bikes with 15 liters of fuel, and then they sell ten, keep five for themselves.”

And that’s how he lives. As honest as the circumstances allow, rolling the dice against coronavirus.

Paying for Your Right to Work

David Martínez, a barber living in Valles del Tuy (about an hour from Caracas) isn’t supplying his trade with another practice. A charismatic young fellow, he sure cuts the hair of his neighborhood’s children on weekends—but this is something he does for free.

“People over there,” he tells me, “they don’t wanna pay the $5 I charge for a haircut. They wanna pay $1 and sit down with someone who’s gonna do a half-ass job. So I work at the barbershop, and that’s in Baruta (Caracas), very far from where I live.”

David has very strong incentives for doing the hour-long trip: after years working for the barbershop owner, an elderly man no longer doing haircuts anymore, he’s pretty much the face and main administrator of the business. Most of the regular clients are his, and although he doesn’t own the establishment, he confides that there are talks about ownership and the future.

Which gets all complicated with the arrival of “radical quarantines” and military checkpoints on all the roads in and out of Caracas.

“I just pay, man,” David says. “This is all about safe-passages, you know, the permits that you get to travel freely. Those papers are supposed to be granted to those working in essential sectors of the economy, so you look around for a solution.”

For him, and just as it is in Juan Carlos’s case, this solution is about knowing the right people:

“I have a contact, a friend at the mayor’s office from where I live. I spoke to her sincerely, told her ‘Listen, I have this problem, what can you do?’ She told me I had to get proof of employment in the food sector. A letter saying I work making food. That, plus my full name, ID number and $30. I spoke to a baker friend. He gave me the paper, with his signature and the seal from his shop, saying I’m a baker. One week later, I got my permit.”

What these soldiers are really selling, in David’s opinion, is the right to let him work.

Now, you must understand that these permits aren’t failproof. As David says, “They usually work, but it also depends a lot on how the National Guard officer at the checkpoint feels like that day. Sometimes they just don’t wanna let me in, or they outright say I’m lying and I ain’t no baker. This is all to get you to pay them, but if I pay one of them guys, then I’m gonna be paying each time I try to cross, and I just don’t have that type of money.”

What these soldiers are really selling, in David’s opinion, is the right to let him work. With fairly low wages and no one keeping a close eye, they, too, complement their income. Some days of “radical quarantine,” David has had to turn around at the highway checkpoint and go back home, losing all his work for the day and his clients’ appointments—which is the only way he works now: everyone must show up at their specific time and with a facemask on. No clients socializing at the barbershop, please.

“It’s $30 each month,” he adds, “because these permits must be renewed, and I just have no choice. I have to make a living, because if I were a millionaire, then maybe I could go on a month and a half without working. But that’s just not my reality.”

A Cut Above the Rest

Of all the people I’ve ever interviewed, no one has been more hermetic or paranoid about his subsidiary activities than Leo Guerra.

“It’s because I work at the central government, dude,” he says. “So I have both, I have the printed permit with my name on it, and I have an ID from the Ministry. With those, I cross as many checkpoints as I need to.”

And they must be a lot, considering Leo makes a buck on the side by driving people around, particularly across states. A domestic coyote, if you will.

“Sometimes (the National Guard officers) get annoying and they question my permit, really looking to get paid, but when I show my work ID, they just let me through. Besides, the car I drive for these things is property of the state, which is really what I use for all my dealings. With everything together, soldiers don’t give me much of a hard time.”

The process with Leo is fairly simple, as long as you qualify as a potential client—like Juan Carlos, he works only with people he knows and trusts. You must tell him three days in advance of your trip, and pay a $35 fee, in the currency of your choice. He’ll then go from his home in Caracas to anywhere in the capital, and the states of Miranda, Aragua, Vargas, and even Carabobo, some two hours—and a zillion of checkpoints—away.

“On a single trip from Caracas to La Guaira,” he says, “you can meet as many as five checkpoints, and each of these works independent from each other in the sense of, let’s say you pay on the first one to get across; the next one doesn’t care that you already paid. You can go through four of these barriers and get blocked on the fifth and now you have to go all the way back.”

This is something that has never happened to him, by the by. His work ID cuts him above the rest.

“I move you around with all the comfort you need,” he prides himself. “You tell me to be at your home at six in the morning, and I’m there sharp. You just wear your facemask and, as long as you’re traveling with me, no one’s going to check your papers or ask who you are, or frisk you, or anything.”

This is a way of living in modern Venezuela, a whole society that agrees to go above laws that are written but not enforced, in a context of anarchic economy. It must be seen in context, too; it’s not as if there’s a conscious decision to break the law, and most of those who pay (or charge) for particular benefits do so because that’s the only way that you can get your life going in the face of an uncaring, and even cruel, state. Everyone’s in it, one way or another, and it’s easy to look over the shoulder at a “society of accomplices” when life is predictable and you know there’s no shortage of fuel, for example, anywhere on your horizon.

For those of us who are less fortunate, we make do with what we have.

Victor Cuotto

Victor usually writes about geek culture and punk music. In 2015, he won the Concurso Venezolano de Literatura Fantástica & Ciencia Ficción SOLSTICIOS. He thinks Magneto makes some valid points.