Venezuelans back and forth to banks amid cash chaos
Not long ago, Yajaira Perez was queuing to withdraw cash from the bank, fearing bills would run short. Now she is queuing anxiously to put it back in. Venezuela’s food, medicine and currency crisis is now a cash crisis, too, with the government about to put millions of bank notes out of circulation. As usual, it is ordinary Venezuelans suffering-waiting in line for hours to deposit the doomed bills, when they could be working, studying or caring for their families.
“It’s horrible, horrible. They can’t do this a few days before Christmas,” said Perez, a middle-aged housewife in a black and white headscarf. Queuing in the early morning at a bank in eastern Caracas, she embodies the often absurd impact of the economic crisis on people’s everyday lives. Spooked by a shortage of banknotes, she had been withdrawing 100 bolivar bills to make sure she had ready cash. Then on Sunday, President Nicolas Maduro ordered the most common bank note, the 100-bolivar unit, to be scrapped by Thursday. “Little by little you put money aside in case of an emergency,” Perez said. “Now I have to come back and I’m ending up with no cash at all.”
Some vendors have already stopped accepting the 100 bolivar notes for fear of not being able to deposit them by Thursday. Teresa Giraldo, 48, has been getting paid mainly in 100-bolivar bills for her job as a cleaner. “I went to buy bread and when I got to the front of the queue they wouldn’t accept them,” she said, standing in line. “Now I have to go through this to put them in the bank. Then I will have to come back in a few days and queue for more hours to withdraw the money again. This is crazy.”
Bags of cash
The 100-bolivar bill is currently the highest-denomination bank note in Venezuela, but on its own it is scarcely enough to buy a piece of candy. In a country with one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, shoppers must carry round unwieldy wads of bills to pay for their purchases. Retirees had complained for months that their pensions were paid in unmanageable 50 and 20bolivar denominations. Eventually the government agreed to pay them in bills of 100. Angel Retali, 71, queued Tuesday along with some 60 other people, holding his stacks of cash in a plastic bag. “You have to carry so much money around in a bag like this,” he said. “Everyone knows what’s in it, and it’s not safe.”
The government is scheduled to start releasing new higher-denomination notes starting on Thursday, the biggest being a 20,000 bolivar bill.But in the meantime, Maduro scrapped the 100-bolivar bill to combat what he called a US-backed plot against Venezuela. He said billions of bolivars, in bills of 100, were stashed away by international gangs in Colombia, Brazil and even in Europe and Asia.He ordered the Colombia border to be closed for three days, saying this would stop the gangs depositing their hoarded banknotes.
The government said on Tuesday that police had arrested 117 people and seized the equivalent of $155 million in raids on such gangs. In the western border region of Tachira, the crackdown caused added misery for people who rely on cross-border trade. Many locals in the city of San Cristobal are used to crossing to the Cucuta on the Colombian side to buy food and medicine. “We were going to go to Cucuta to buy some supplies that we can’t get here and save a few bolivars,” said Carmen Hidaldo, a retired teacher of 60. “Now, who knows what we’ll be able to get.” —AFP