How Bartering Works in Western Caracas

The precarious trades carried out by the most humble people have become impossible, so many resort to pre-modern ways of survival, just to stay alive

A perfect portrait of economic pandemonium.

Photo: Runrun.Es

It’s almost noon. Mireya stands in front of building 15 in El 23 de Enero, a sector of Western Caracas and one of the most populated in Venezuela. She has a tricolor backpack, the ones that the government hands out, with several kilos of sugar. On the floor, there’s a bag with kilos of rice and pasta. Her 11-year-old daughter, who’s going to work with her today, is taking some time to rest while mom offers “sugar to trade” in the building.

Mireya is 41 years old, dark-skinned with black hair and bakes cakes for a living. Before the pandemic, she sold cakes, desserts, snacks and party decorations. She sold clothes which she purchased in bulk in Valencia, a couple of hours away, in another state. The quarantine practically left her without any source of income and a daughter who depends on her. Her other two children have their own families, but they still live with her mother in Caricuao, Caracas.

Now Mireya lives off bartering food in the slums. She walks around Western Caracas every day, trading sugar for rice, pasta or corn flour, except for the ones that come in the government CLAP boxes food program, “no one wants those because of their low quality”. She doesn’t accept beans or peas from the boxes either, because they’re harder to sell later.

She heard about this bartering business through her eldest son (24), who recently lost his job in a car workshop, and he heard about it through a friend.

“Sugar to trade here! I’ve got sugar to trade, neighbor!”

She’s been shouting the same sentence since 8:00 a.m. outside buildings in El 23 de Enero. She can’t go past there; the armed colectivos that control the area don’t allow it, allegedly for security reasons. 

Someone heard her and went downstairs.

Chica, how many products for the sugar?”

“Two, my love,” Mireya answers.

The products she manages to barter, she then takes to Catia (one of the busiest areas of Caracas, despite the quarantine), to sell them to food resellers. That’s where she buys the sugar in bundles: the 30 k. bag costs 19 dollars in cash. There’s no other form of payment.

“This is barely enough to survive. You don’t make much from it. One has to look for a way to get by, the most I’ve made in a day is 5 dollars.”

His trade rate is three or four plantains, depending on the size, for one product.

Minimum wage in Venezuela is 400,000 bolivars, the equivalent of 1.06 dollars per month, according to the exchange rate published by the Banco Central de Venezuela for August. However, the Centro de Documentación y Análisis para los Trabajadores estimates that until July 2020, the basic food basket costs over 6 million bolivars, around 20 dollars. According to the Encuesta de Condiciones de Vida (Life Conditions Poll) carried out by the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB) in 2019 and until March of this year, 45% of the Venezuelan population was self-employed. In 2018, that percentage was 21%.

A Cart of Plantains Up a Hill

Jesús is wearing bermuda shorts and a loose fitting t-shirt. He’s 48, but he has so many grey hairs that he looks older. A construction worker by trade, he painfully admits that “right now, no one is building anything, not even a shack.” So now he works with his eldest son (24) trading plantains for other products. There are six people at home, and only the two of them work. They live in the 4th kilometer of El Junquito, right outside the capital, and they leave every day at dawn for Catia, where they buy the plantain baskets. It’s complicated to leave El Junquito because of poor public transportation and the fuel shortage.

There are around 120 plantains in a basket. You buy them with 30 assorted products: rice, pasta, flour or grains, although it also depends on what the providers want. If you pay with money, it’s 10 to 12 dollars in cash. When Jesús pays with products, he brings them from home; some in the shopping cart and some in a backpack to distribute the weight. After the purchase, he walks through the neighborhoods, this time in El 23 de Enero. His trade rate is three or four plantains, depending on the size, for one product.

“I make between 600 and 700 thousand bolivars (1.5 dollars) out of this per day. People think that you make a lot of money with this, but right now things are tough. This is just enough to eat. It gets worse each day, I think that at some point I won’t be able to eat!”

From El Junquito to Catia, Jesús has to pay 40,000 bolivars in bus fare (80,000 per day), even though the fare established by the Transportation Ministry is 3,500 bolivars. Sometimes drivers charge up to a dollar to let him on the bus with the cart filled with products, and he can’t get cash for the bus at a bank. In Venezuela, ATMs rarely have money, and if you go to the bank teller, they only give you 400,000 bolivars and the lines are endless. Jesús sees the opportunity to get cash, both dollars and bolivars, by selling the products he collects.

As he walks through El 23 de Enero offering plantains as loud as his lungs will allow, his facemask spends more time on his chin than over his nose and mouth. He says he tries to avoid coronavirus by not being “squeezed up” against other people. A woman approaches him, and before she asks about how many plantains she’ll get for products, she asks him to use the facemask correctly. Jesús pulls it up to his nose.

He now works from a fixed spot in Catia, usually with a pack of bills in hand, both dollars and bolivars, buying products which he resells for a profit. Around him, there are at least 20 other people doing the same.

“You guys have to use the facemask, otherwise I can’t approach you,” the potential client says.

The products usually traded are those from the CLAP box, especially rice. Officially, this chavista social program costs 150,000 bolivars, but the price really varies between areas. In the community of La Cañada, located within El 23 de Enero, the CLAP box costs only 35,000 bolivars, packing one liter of cooking oil, one kilo of corn flour, one kilo of peas, two kilos of pasta, and seven kilos of rice.

José, the Reseller

José wants to study accounting. He’s 28 years old, and before COVID-19, he supported his wife and four little daughters as a construction worker. He now makes his living buying products that people like Mireya and Jesús get through bartering. Up until two months ago, he did what they do, but because of serious back pain as a result of long walks carrying heavy loads of products, he had to stop.

He now works from a fixed spot in Catia, usually with a pack of bills in hand, both dollars and bolivars, buying products which he resells for a profit. Around him, there are at least 20 other people doing the same.

“I buy your products, I buy your products!”

José accepts almost everything, except the yellow flour that comes in the CLAP, but he does take the beans and peas. Although prices may vary, he buys the beans for 20,000 bolivars and the peas for 30,000. Then he sells those same products for 40,000 and 60,000 bolivars, respectively, mostly to older people, “who buy them because that’s all they can afford with their pension” of 400,000 bolivars.

“I make about two dollars per day with this. And since I don’t have another source of income now, I have to work the streets. I’m the only one who works at home, although my wife helps me sometimes. Today she’s not helping because she’s running errands: my youngest girl hasn’t been registered yet.”

In Venezuela, according to the Ley Orgánica para la Protección de Niños, Niñas y Adolescentes, babies have to be registered at the Civil Registry before their third month. José and Fabiana’s baby is already three years old. In order for the girl to appear in the records as a citizen, her parents must present more documents and justify the delay.

In the two months that José has been working from his spot in Catia, officers of the Caracas Police have detained him three times. “The blows my mom and dad didn’t give me, I get from the police now,” he says. And when it’s not the PoliCaracas, then it’s the Special Actions Forces (the dreaded FAES).

“Sometimes you have to pay the FAES to be allowed to work. They come by and ask for a contribution. They mostly ask for products. They do that with food establishments in Catia as well. They ask for meat, chicken, cheese (…). But PoliCaracas are the worst ones. They come in and they want to take everything without saying a word. Three times they have detained me because I won’t let them take my things. They only succeeded once.

“I used to tell them that I have four kids at home who need to eat, and the smallest one has seizures and needs treatment.”

His three-year-old was prescribed Epamin, a syrup to control her convulsions. How long the medication lasts, depends on how many seizures she has per month, but generally he buys it every three months. Up until September, the price was over 5 million bolivars.

The last time he was detained, they held him for several hours in a PoliCaracas precinct in Catia. During the struggle, his wife was hit in the face by one of the officers. They didn’t take her, but they handcuffed José and took him on the motorbike. His wrists still bear the marks. However, they didn’t take his merchandise. He thinks in the end, they felt sorry for them.