Marisol Arcano used to attend rallies for former President Hugo Chavez, hoping for a better future under the leftist regime. But now, with the Venezuelan economy in a tailspin, the 60-year old single mother and her daughter, 14, have to skip breakfast because they don’t have enough money to eat three times a day.
So they made a decision. They would sell all of their belongings in order to survive, part of a “garage sale fever” that has begun to grip the country as it suffers from looting and food riots and a drive to recall President Nicolas Maduro.
“Our situation is horrible,” Arcano said, standing by a red tent filled with clothes in front of her house in a suburb of Maracaibo in western Venezuela. She receives a government pension of 15,000 bolivars a month, worth about $15 dollars on the black market, but it doesn’t even cover the basics. “Who can live with that amount of money? Just yesterday I earned 30,000 bolivars selling my blouses and pants.”
She’s among an increasing number of Venezuelans in the middle and lower socio-economic ranks who have swallowed their pride and started their own garage-sale enterprises. They’re doing it for two reasons: to stay afloat in Venezuela as inflation has soared — or to make enough money to leave.
“That inflationary acceleration has left a growing number of families with no opportunities to satisfy their basic needs. Food prices increased 315 per cent just in 2015,” explained Gustavo Machado, an economics professor at the University of Zulia in Maracaibo.
With Venezuela’s oil revenue running dry, it no longer has enough money to import food and basic goods. Price and currency controls are fueling hoarding and driving up inflation, which the IMF expects will hit 500 percent this year.
That’s what has led Arcano and her daughter, along with two other families, to set up three canopies in front of her modest home from Monday to Friday to sell their used clothing, shoes, antiques, makeup, paintings, furniture, electronic devices and jewelry. They even have a wooden dog house for sale. Sometimes, they invest a portion of their earnings to buy other clothing and resell it for a profit, to keep their business going.
They keep their prices low to lure in new customers. An old T-shirt can sell for about a dollar, while malls would charge five times that for a new one. Payment is usually in cash or electronic transfer for pricier items.
Making money by reselling goods means she can avoid what has become known to Venezuelans as “President Nicolás Maduro’s diet.”
“I have served high-class people and even politicians in my street shop,” she said. “Need has a hungry face, as we say here, when there’s no way out of a situation.”
Revitalized old tradition
Garage sales are not a new trend in Venezuela, especially in petroleum-rich regions such as Maracaibo, where thousands of American oil company workers have lived for decades, noted Julio Portillo, a member of Zulia’s Academy of History.
But now garage sales have taken on a different tone. “People are selling their ancestors’ belongings, and their own. It’s heartbreaking for them,” Portillo said.
Garage sale entrepreneurs get the word out via phone messages to friends and family. They post on Instagram and Twitter. Some just pull over their cars on main streets to exhibit merchandise with for-sale signs.
Francisco García has tried all those options. The 43-year-old is a college graduate without a job. He plans to migrate to Medellin, Colombia, to look for a better future as a professional chef once he sells enough of his goods. He says he’ll need about 200,000 bolivars for migration paperwork to live in the neighboring country.
García started selling off his belongings last April in La Corotera market, a warehouse on La Limpia Avenue where anybody can rent one of the 168 stalls on the weekends. It’s been in business since last year and opens at 5 a.m. Every single spot is already booked for next Saturday, said the market manager, Gustavo Rincón.
García has come to rely on garage sales, where even on a bad weekend he can make as much as $40. That’s a critical source of income when meals for his family during the last few years have sometimes been nothing more than water-and-vegetable soup.
But he has had to give up precious memories in the struggle to survive. Standing among the magazines, mugs, sport caps and paintings he is selling, he becomes teary-eyed when he remembers that he sold his prom outfit for 2,000 bolivars, or about $2.
Venezuela’s new diet
Political violence, personal insecurity, economic collapse, a shattered health system and shortages of food, medicine and jobs have resulted in about 2 million Venezuelans migrating legally to 94 countries since Hugo Chavez’s revolution began in 1999, according to Ivan De La Vega, a sociologist who leads the International Migration Laboratory in Caracas’ Simon Bolivar University.
In the U.S., petitions for asylum have been on the rise. In March, Venezuelans climbed to second place among nationalities submitting asylum requests, with 1,345 during that month, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
From 2005-2014, some 100,324 Venezuelans became legal residents in the United States — including 8,427 in that last year alone — according to the Department of Homeland Security.
For those who stay, survival can mean more than one job, even for professionals. One 28-year-old lawyer, who didn’t want his name used because he fears retaliation for speaking out, sells old and new clothes in three prime spots at the La Corotera market on the weekend, when he’s not in court or teaching classes.
On a recent morning, he bought a suitcase full of old clothes from a crying elderly woman.
“The lady was devastated because her grandchildren had been eating only mangoes for three days,” he said.
Another middle-class garage-sale entrepreneur, Gina Martinez, has been selling necklaces, bracelets, chains and even car parts since last December to make income she needs to survive.
As her husband, Carlos, said: “Nobody eats with only one job right now.”