Economic survival is top of mind for most Venezuelans amid pandemic

By Gonzalo Dominguez Loeda

Caracas, Jul 15 (efe-epa).- Three neighbors chat at the door of Rene Solarte’s home, just as they would on any other day in Catia, a poor neighborhood on the Venezuelan capital’s west side.

Hundreds of nearby fellow street vendors crowd around him as if the pandemic were now nothing more than a bad dream. Like the majority of Venezuelans – including those with salaried positions who must supplement their income with informal work – Solarte has no choice but to continue to eke out a living on the street.

“How can I stay at home? I have to go out. If I don’t, how do I survive?” he told Efe.

The idea of a quarantine only elicits a wry smile from Solarte, visible underneath a makeshift mask that covers half of his face but is of dubious quality.

He can’t be totally cavalier, however, because police officers patrol the streets in an attempt to enforce compliance with the country’s coronavirus-triggered lockdown.

When they approach his part of the neighborhood, Solarte hides his merchandise – garlic cloves, ginger and papelon (whole cane sugar) – and scurries away with the other vendors. They’ll go home empty-handed if the authorities catch them and remove their products.

In Caracas, like in much of Latin America, a large portion of the population lives hand to mouth. The difference is that seven years of economic recession and a sky-high inflation rate have drastically reduced the purchasing power of salaried workers and forced them to seek out additional income to make ends meet.

Solarte must go every day before dawn to a wholesale market and buy a selection of products that he hopes to sell later. He needs to subsist on the roughly $10 he earns daily. There is no other alternative.

The situation is equally challenging for people like Alexander Pita, the owner of a formal fruit shop in Catia who provided cover to the group of vendors hiding from the police.

“It’s been extremely difficult because people are living day to day, and (fruit) is a very delicate product. They let us work a half day … There are days that it’s 9 am and they force you to close. A lot of merchandise here goes bad and there’s no one who’s going to replace it,” he said in a store that lacks refrigeration and is practically devoid of products.

Pita speaks for many Venezuelans when he says the four-month-long quarantine, which has been eased in recent weeks under a system of alternating lockdowns and economic openings, feels like an eternity.

According to official figures, more than 10,000 people have been infected with the novel coronavirus in that South American country, including governors, mayors and other high-ranking officials, and a total of 96 deaths have been attributed to Covid-19.

Elsewhere in the city, middle-class Venezuelans, those with a stable monthly income that covers their expenses, walk along the downtown Sabana Grande boulevard during a 72-hour government-imposed pause in the country’s strict quarantine.

Juana Llanes, a nurse who was enjoying the start of her vacation after four months of hard work, strolls past ice-cream shops and appliance and clothing stores.

Although she cannot afford to live extravagantly, she does have a level of economic security that many of her countrymen do not enjoy.

“We’re out today, and that’s because she (her niece) went to the doctor’s. (We’ve been) inside. We don’t visit anyone. We go out to shop and that’s it. I’m on vacation at my work,” Llanes, who took advantage of the walk to the doctor’s office to enjoy a bit of sunshine, told Efe.

A fortunate few upper-class Venezuelans, meanwhile, are able to endure the coronavirus crisis without major economic concerns.

Although luxury shopping areas like Las Mercedes have largely been empty during the quarantine, people can be seen buying tickets at cineplexes that operate intermittently at reduced capacity or observing social-distancing rules at upscale grocery stores.

High-quality masks and gloves are abundant in Caracas’ more affluent areas, and even the occasional plastic face shield is used. The fear of the disease is evident, but people’s economic concerns are not nearly as pressing.

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