Just hop­ing for toi­let pa­per

Shop­pers lose out as bacha­que­ros snap up in­creas­ingly scarce sta­ples

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - with Mery Mo­gol­lon

When a friend texted me that cof­fee and toi­let pa­per were on the shelves of an eastern Cara­cas su­per­mar­ket, I raced to El Pa­tio out­let hop­ing against hope that the in­creas­ingly scarce house­hold items would still be avail­able.

No such luck. When I ar­rived at 9 a.m., the line was the length of a foot­ball field and a dozen bacha­que­ros, dressed in ath­letic wear and blue­jeans, were leav­ing the store. They lugged ny­lon bags packed with cof­fee, milk pow­der, cooking oil and sugar, all highly cov­eted items in to­day’s Venezuela. Sling­ing the pre­cious com­modi­ties over their shoul­ders, they sped away on mo­tor­bikes.

When armed sol­diers fi­nally al­lowed me in­side, all that re­mained were a few bot­tles of dish soap and packages of corn flour. The bacha­que­ros , a term de­rived from the word bachaco, mean­ing a vo­ra­cious ant-like in­sect, had snapped up what I needed most.

Bacha­que­ros are the new pro­tag­o­nists in Venezue­lans’ daily drama of buy­ing food and med­i­cal essen­tials. They are the foot sol­diers in a new and highly mo­bile black mar­ket re­ly­ing on so­cial me­dia, strength in num­bers, mo­tor­bikes and the con­ve­nience — at a price — of home de­liv­ery.

Of­ten mov­ing in mo­tor­ized packs, bacha­que­ros spe­cial­ize in fer­ret­ing out what items are avail­able and where they can be found among the var­i­ous gov­ern­ment-spon­sored food out­lets and pri­vately run stores. The bacha­que­ros de­pend on in­side in­for­mants and sa­ti­ated buy­ers who tip them off be­fore word gets out to most peo­ple.

Pur­chas­ing the goods with cash, they re­sell them through in­for­mally ar­ranged de­liv­ery net­works set up through so­cial me­dia. They sell milk pow­der, chicken and dis­pos­able di­a­pers at out­ra­geous markups, count­ing on Venezue­lans to pay pre­mi­ums to avoid the has­sles of la cola , which means stand­ing in line but which has be­come a syn­onym for the act of shop­ping it­self.

The new high-tech, high­speed hoard­ers have re­placed many of the street ven­dors of black mar­ket goods shut out in a crack­down by Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s gov­ern­ment. Maduro has de­clared “eco­nomic war” on black mar­keters — and also on some pri­vate re­tail­ers, in­clud­ing the Far­matodo phar­macy chain and Dia a Dia su­per­mar­kets, which he na­tion­al­ized af­ter ac­cus­ing them of mar­ket ma­nip­u­la­tion.

Maduro has de­ployed the armed forces to stanch the flow of as much as 15% of heav­ily sub­si­dized Venezue­lan food and fuel prod­ucts to black mar­kets in Colom­bia, Brazil and Caribbean coun­tries. But the en­force­ment ac­tions have brought no vis­i­ble re­lief.

The gov­ern­ment has also be­gun re­quir­ing shop­pers to reg­is­ter their na­tional iden­tity card num­bers or fin­ger­prints as a means of mon­i­tor­ing pur­chases, although the elec­tronic in­fra­struc­ture needed for such con­trols to work are not yet ap­par­ent, at least from my van­tage point in line.

The gov­ern­ment in mid-March set up a ware­house in the Yaguara bar­rio in east Cara­cas where goods con­fis­cated from con­tra­band ven­dors and of­fend­ing re­tail­ers are resold at cu­trate prices. Ernesto Vil­le­gas, the Cara­cas re­gional gov­ern­ment head, de­clared that the fa­cil­ity “will re­solve the scarcity prob­lem.”

But Cara­cas res­i­dents are still lining up. In­stead of go­ing to the store once ev­ery seven to 10 days as I had up to a year ago, I now swing by three or four times a week, spend­ing up to three hours on each trip, hop­ing to buy some­thing, any­thing, that I need, but never know­ing what will be avail­able.

If any­thing, things seem to be get­ting worse. The gov­ern­ment this month halved the weekly ra­tion of three es­sen­tial prod­ucts: corn flour, to about 4 1 ⁄

2 pounds per per­son; milk pow­der, to about 2 pounds; and toi­let pa­per, to two rolls.

Mul­ti­ply my ex­pe­ri­ence by the mil­lions of Venezue­lans forced to en­dure this rou­tine, and you have what can only be de­scribed as a mon­u­men­tal waste of time and pro­duc­tiv­ity. It’s also danger­ous: Armed rob­beries are com­mon as thieves tar­get cell­phones while shop­pers are in line.

Res­i­dents of Cara­cas for the most part wait pa­tiently, know­ing that au­thor­i­ties will shut down the stores at the first sign of un­rest, leav­ing them emp­ty­handed. But so­cial me­dia re­cently re­ported loot­ing in Cag ua.

In Jan­uary, the na­tional guard in­ter­vened at a store in Avila, on Cara­cas’ north­ern edge, fir­ing shots in the air af­ter dis­tur­bances were re­ported.

How did it get this bad in a na­tion said to have the largest oil re­serves in the world? That’s what I and other suf­fer­ers ask our­selves. Six months ago, only corn­meal and cooking oil were ra­tioned, at four packages and about 1 1 ⁄ gal­lons

2 per per­son, re­spec­tively.

Pres­i­dent Maduro blames Wash­ing­ton and “im­pe­ri­al­ism.” Re­cent polls in­di­cate the vast ma­jor­ity of Venezue­lans think Maduro is mis­man­ag­ing the econ­omy.

As is so of­ten the case, we Venezue­lans try to see the com­i­cal side of the sit­u­a­tion. A few weeks ago, Hen­rique Capriles, the op­po­si­tion gover­nor of Mi­randa state, sent out a tweet upon Maduro’s re­turn from an in­ter­na­tional trip. It read:

“Maduro, did you bring milk?”

Mo­gol­lon is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent. Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colom­bia, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Juan Bar­reto AFP/Getty Images

VENEZUE­LANS line up out­side a su­per­mar­ket to buy soap pow­der in Cara­cas in Fe­bru­ary. Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro has de­clared “eco­nomic war” on black mar­ke­teers, but things have not im­proved for many shop­pers.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.