Caracas resident Barbara Rojas used to have a coveted position at Venezuela’s state-run oil company, the kind of job that not so long ago people would hang on to until retirement due to the generous pay and benefits.
But in February, Rojas quit her job as an office administrator. She was disgusted that hyperinflation and the collapse of Venezuela’s currency had rendered her wages nearly worthless. Rojas points out that nearly half of the 149 people in her office have walked off the job.
“I could no longer support myself,” said Rojas, 22, who plans to join a mass migration of Venezuelans by moving to Chile. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to other South American countries and beyond in recent years.
Amid Venezuela’s worst economic crisis in modern history, worker absenteeism is soaring. Although there are no official statistics, Carlos González of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, the country’s main business association, estimates up to 40 percent of employees have either quit their jobs or regularly skip work. Many now get by partly doing odd jobs or selling food on the black market, and partly on money sent by relatives overseas. Those vital cash transfers from abroad, called remittances, totaled an estimated $279 million in 2016, according to Pew Research Center.
Besides quitting over low wages, González says people must often skip work to scrounge for groceries because of widespread food shortages. Commuting to work has also become a nightmare. A lack of tires and spare parts has cut the fleet of functioning buses and subway cars, while fares for public transportation have skyrocketed. Some employees spend a quarter of their day’s wages just to get to work — and decide it’s not worth it.
That was the conclusion of Yajira Delgado, who used to work as a seamstress at a textile plant that produces baseball and soccer jerseys. She quit in December to spend more time with her two kids. “I didn’t earn enough to cover bus fare and food,” Delgado explains.
During a recent visit to the plant, located in a Caracas slum, rows of sewing machines sat idle. Of the 20 people once employed here, six remain. Plant owner Enzo Pascarela says he’s not surprised.
“Venezuelans are not lazy,” he says. “But salaries are absurdly low. You would be stupid to go to work.”
Worker absenteeism is one of several factors dragging down the Venezuelan economy, which shrank by 13 percent last year, according to Congress. Production of everything from milk to aluminum to oil is plummeting. González, the business chamber official, who runs a construction company in the western city of Valencia, says it often takes his crews several extra days or weeks to finish projects due to a lack of workers.
To placate job holders and secure more votes, President Nicolás Maduro, who hopes to win another six-year term in Venezuela’s May 20 election, announced this month a 95 percent increase of the minimum wage. But the new base salary of 2.5 million bolivars per month amounts to about $3 on the black market.
What’s more, analysts say the increase is unlikely to have much effect given that this is the third wage hike this year and prices are rising even faster. The Central Bank of Venezuela has stopped releasing inflation figures. But congress, the only branch of government controlled by the opposition, said this week that the annual inflation rate is running at more than 13,000 percent.
Hyperinflation and the dearth of public transportation is deeply demoralizing to those who still have jobs, like Yorman Jiménez and his wife, Maribel Barrera.
They live in a mountainside slum and travel every morning to government jobs in downtown Caracas. The journey begins before down as they climb an outdoor staircase that leads up the mountain to the bus stop. Buses are hard to find and many people climb aboard dump trucks and pickups that offer rides. Bus fares have doubled in the past month. That means Jiménez and Barrera will shell out a quarter of their day’s wages just to get to their job sites.
The bus drops them off at the subway station. To offset rising bus fares, the government has waived metro fees. But that’s led to overloaded trains. Even with packed cars, scores of people try to push their way on board. The metro is slow, the AC doesn’t work, and it stops for unexplained reasons in the dark tunnel.
After nearly two hours of travel, Barrera exits the subway for her job at the attorney general’s office.
Jiménez heads to the Transportation Ministry where he earns about $4 per month as a truck driver. He arrives 45 minutes late but has still beaten most of his colleagues to work. Others have stopped coming — an option that Jiménez contemplates.
“I’ve thought about quitting my job,” he says. “I’ve also thought about leaving Venezuela for good.”
The collapse of Venezuela, explained
The country is in chaos, but its leaders aren’t going anywhere.
Venezuela’s Deepening Crisis Triggers Mass Migration Into Colombia
Venezuela’s downward economic spiral has led to widespread food shortages, hyperinflation and now mass migration. Many Venezuelans are opting for the easiest escape route — by crossing the land border into Colombia.
There were more than half a million Venezuelans in Colombia as of December, according to the Colombian immigration department, and many came over in the last two years. Their exodus rivals the number of Syrians in Germany or Rohingya in Bangladesh. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, calls it the world’s “least-talked-about” immigration crisis.
But Colombians are taking notice. In fact, President Juan Manuel Santos is asking for international aid to cope with the large numbers of immigrants, many of whom are impoverished, hungry and desperate.
“I appreciate the offers of financial and other aid from the international community,” Santos said last week. “We need it because unfortunately this problem gets worse day by day.”
Santos suggested that the crisis will last as long as Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian president, remains in power. His socialist economic policies have led to a collapse of the local currency and inflation expected to hit 13,000 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Still, Maduro is widely expected to secure another six-year term in the April 22 election, in part, because the most popular opposition candidates have been banned from running.
Earlier this month, Santos announced measures to tighten the border but the immediate result has been a spike in new arrivals as Venezuelans rush to cross the frontier before the new rules take hold. Families clog the bridge spanning the Táchira River, the busiest border crossing between the two countries, as they push baby strollers, carry boxes and drag roller luggage into Colombia.
For many, their first stop comes a few feet inside Colombian territory, in the Norte de Santander region, where they unload their jewelry to dealers who purchase precious metals. At one shop, newcomers pull off their rings and unpin their brooches and necklaces. Workers use files and acids to check the purity of the metal. Then shop owner José Alvarado negotiates prices.
He offers the equivalent of about $7 for a woman’s silver bracelet and $275 for a man’s gold ring, but he rejects a watch for its dubious quality. A Venezuelan who fled his homeland two years ago, Alvarado says he understands what his compatriots are going through. He says the most heartbreaking case was a couple that sold their wedding rings after 40 years of marriage.
“People cry a lot when they sell their jewelry. But they have no choice,” he says.
Indeed, Venezuelans need the cash as they travel deeper into Colombia or journey south to Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.
On the border bridge, several Venezuelans employed by Colombian travel agencies hawk bus tickets. Passage to Lima sells for $241, while Buenos Aires costs twice as much. These freelance agents live on the Venezuelan side of the border and say they too want to get away. But lacking money and passports, they can only dream about the destinations they are trumpeting.
A few miles up the road, in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta, a new business has sprung up to take advantage of the crisis. In the city plaza, hair dealers are looking for clients to sell them locks for making hair extensions. They wear signs around their necks stating, “we buy hair,” and shout out the same message.
Nearly all their customers are penniless Venezuelans, including Jefferson Márquez. He arrived two days ago from the Venezuelan city of Mérida with the hair of his 14-year-old cousin in a plastic bag. He sells it for about $4, which he plans to send back to his family.
Another potential vendor is Karelis Nieves. She worked at a supermarket in the Venezuelan city of Maracay but says the business collapsed after it was expropriated by the government. Nieves, 23, came to Colombia last month and is trying to scrounge up money to support her parents and 2-year-old daughter back home. But the hair broker requires locks that are at least a foot-and-a-half long. After pulling out his measuring tape, he informs Nieves that her flowing brown hair is a few inches too short.
There are other ways to get by, including selling street food, working construction and busking.
Street musician Jesús García says he fled to Colombia four months ago. Due to the collapse of Venezuela’s currency, his salary as a mechanic on an oil rig was no longer enough to feed his family of four. Masterly on the harp, García has teamed up with a Venezuelan guitarist and the duo plays Venezuelan folk music, called llanero. The spare change people toss into their open guitar case adds up to about $10 a day — more than García made for a week’s work in Venezuela.
But others resort to prostitution or street crime to survive, says Carlos Luna, head of the Cúcuta Chamber of Commerce. In addition, he points out that throngs of Colombians who moved to Venezuela during that country’s periodic oil booms — or to escape from violence during Colombia’s long-running guerrilla war — are now returning.
Luna says Cúcuta must not open refugee centers because he says they would only attract more Venezuelan migrants and exacerbate the problem. However, churches and charities now run a few soup kitchens and shelters where migrants are allowed to stay for 48 hours until they move on to their next destination.
One of the kitchens near the border bridge serves 1,000 lunches per day, including today’s meal of chicken and spaghetti. Among the diners is Danny Márquez, who arrived the day before. He used to run a thriving business selling cleaning supplies in Venezuela. But the economic crisis drove him bankrupt. He used to be solidly middle class and is clearly distraught at having to ask for food.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve set foot in a soup kitchen,” says Márquez, who has tears in his eyes.
He plans to resettle in Chile. But Márquez is bitter about having to abandon his homeland.
“I resisted for two years,” he says. “I vowed to myself: ‘I’m not leaving. I’m not leaving. I’m not leaving.’ But then things became impossible.”
Maduro Calls Out President Trump On Twitter, Requesting ‘Dialogue’
Updated at 8:58 a.m. ET
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has offered an overture to his U.S. counterpart on Twitter, using President Trump’s preferred medium Monday to ask for talks between the two countries.
Trump “campaigned promoting non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs,” Maduro tweeted, tagging the U.S. president’s account. “The time has come to fulfill it and change your agenda of aggression for one of dialogue.
.@RealDonaldTrump hizo campaña promoviendo la no intromisión en los asuntos internos de otros países. Llegó el momento de cumplirlo y cambiar su agenda de agresión por una de diálogo. ¿Diálogo en Caracas o Washington DC? Hora y lugar y ahí estaré.
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) February 19, 2018
“Dialogue in Caracas or Washington DC?” he added. “Time and place and I’ll be there.”
The surprise olive branch comes less than a week after Maduro was told he would “no longer be welcome” at the Summit of the Americas, a policy meeting that brings together heads of state from throughout the Western Hemisphere. Peru, the host country for the April gathering, uninvited Maduro after his government called an early presidential election to be held just over a week after the summit, and his supporters on the country’s Supreme Court barred Venezuela’s principal opposition coalitionfrom participating.
Both moves have been condemned as intended to rig the results from the outset.
At the same time, the tweet of overture to Trump coincided with another major move by Maduro’s government: On Tuesday, Venezuela launches presales of its planned “petro” cryptocurrency, a digital currency backed by the country’s oil, gold and diamond reserves.
The launch has been billed by Maduro as a splashy entrance into “the world of the 21st century,” but as journalist John Otis notes on Morning Edition, some critics have called the new cryptocurrency a scam.
“In terms of international investors, there are huge risks because these are barrels [of oil] that are not being developed, at all,” Caracas analyst Jean Paul Leidenz tells Otis. “I mean, there are not even plans, or a project of a future joint venture exploiting these barrels.”
The move is also born of desperation, at least in part: The country has been caught in a spiraling economic crisis, with the price of a single cup of coffee rising 718 percent in just the past 12 weeks alone, by Bloomberg’s estimation. The publication says that, translated to an annualized pace, this recent hyperinflation reaches a staggering 448,025 percent.
At the same time, as NPR’s Samantha Raphelson reports, it is estimated that Venezuela “is suffering from an 85 percent shortage of medicine.”
The economic hardships have prompted many Venezuelans to seek sanctuary from the turmoil in neighboring Colombia. In turn, the Venezuelan government has voiced some incendiary suspicions.
“In Colombia, they are planning to bring back times that have already ended, like military bombing, a military invasion or the occupation — through blood and gunfire — of a peaceful country like Venezuela,” Venezuelan Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab said earlier this month, according to the Bogota Post.
“May Colombia understand that here we are going to fight and resist. We are not afraid,” he reportedly said later, without offering proof of the alleged invasion plans.
The claims, which have been vehemently denied by Colombian leaders, came just a week after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Bogota for talks with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Ahead of his South American trip earlier this month, Tillerson said the Trump administration is not pushing for a regime change, though he did suggest Maduro may face threats from within his own borders.
“In the history of Venezuela and in fact the history in other Latin American and South American countries, often times, it is the military that handles that,” he said, according to Reuters. “When things are so bad that the military leadership realizes that it just can’t serve the citizens anymore, they will manage a peaceful transition.”
“Whether that will be the case here or not,” he added, “I do not know.”
Trump, for his part, did not immediately respond to Maduro’s tweet Monday calling for dialogue.
Conoco authorized to seize $636 million in Venezuela PDVSA assets: Curacao court
- A Curacao court has authorized ConocoPhillips to seize about $636 million in assets belonging to Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA.
- The legal action was the latest in the Caribbean to enforce a $2 billion arbitration award by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) over the nationalization.