Government pensions in Venezuela used to mean security in old age — but not any more

Older Venezuelans stand in line for hours outside banks every month to receive government pensions.
Older Venezuelans stand in line for hours outside banks every month to receive government pensions.

At age 84, Anselmo Beltran needs to rest his legs after waiting in line for eight hours outside a government bank.

He sits down on the sidewalk, away from a crowd of a couple hundred seniors who hope to collect their pensions on a recent Thursday. They know the institution may run out of cash or the payment amount might be cut, even though the government of President Nicolás Maduro wires the credit into their accounts every month.

The scene in Maracaibo, the second-largest city in Venezuela, is a common one at banks across the country on the third week of every month. And Beltran, like others, is worried he will go home empty-handed like he did in August, when his three-hour trip from Paraguaipoa — an area adjacent to Colombia’s border — didn’t pay off. Beltran’s government pension wasn’t paid that month.

And with inflation hitting a staggering 536 percent so far this year, the money doesn’t go far when he does get it.

“I won’t be able to buy almost anything, even if they pay us,” he complained from beneath a straw hat that shielded him from the afternoon sun.

Older Venezuelans are among those feeling the worst impacts of an economic meltdown in a country where food and medicine shortages are chronic. There are approximately five million people over 55 — the age to be able to qualify for government pensions — and 20 percent of them don’t have any other income.

Maduro often praises his Bolivarian Revolution for providing elderly Venezuelans with protection and benefits that no government had ever done before his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, asserting last May that “the lives of millions have been dignified.”

But a pension pays very little: 177,000 bolivares a month, or about $5 on the black market, while a kilo of flour, rice or grain can easily cost up to 30,000 bolivares. Beltran’s entire budget to travel and eat a modest breakfast on the day he waits in line is 40,000 bolivares, or about $1.20.

“This is wrong. This has got to change,” he said, shaking his head.

Mauricio Carvajal, a 75-year-old former pharmaceutical assistant and amateur poet, used to weigh 143 pounds before Chávez, a socialist, won his first election in 1998. Now Carvajal weighs 50 pounds less — down to just 93 pounds — something he blames on the political regime with its chronic shortages.

“Our economic situation is degrading,” he said, finishing a free lunch thanks to a county program in Santa Lucia, a neighborhood of Maracaibo, which is the capital of Zulia state, the richest oil region in Venezuela.

Only a very tight belt prevents Carvajal’s pants from falling off.

“I voted for Chávez until the 2002 elections. He cheated us,” he said, outside the Children of the Sun Foundation, which had to reshape its nutrition programs to feed not only street kids but also dozens of Venezuelan seniors plunged into poverty.

“We have doubled the quota of grandpas and grandmas we take care of, and we have a long waiting list,” said Marife García, head of social programs at the shelter.

Seniors can have a tough life in Venezuela, said Luis Francisco Cabezas, head of Convite, a human rights group formed by college professors, activists and others.

“If you didn’t [work] enough in Venezuela, you are going to depend exclusively on a pension, which only covers 15 percent of your basic needs,” he said.

Cabezas said a third of 150 old-age homes in Venezuela have closed their doors because of food and medicine shortages.

Carvajal lives alone in a rented room down the street in Santa Lucia but says his state allowance comes up short when he needs to buy groceries or drugs to treat his cardiac failure.

“Our money is good for nothing,” he said.

Some of the retirement homes in Venezuela are managed by and financed by the government. Civil or religious associations lead many others, but residents’ monthly payments and private donations have been falling short recently.

Ramón Suárez Soliz, 76, who used to work for an American insurance company in Venezuela, spent four months in a retirement home run by nuns in Santa Cruz de Mara, next to the Colombian border. He said the experience was terrible. Food was insufficient or rotten, and he often saw bugs on the food, he said.

He also once saw another resident choke to death on a piece of beef right in front of him. Workers at the home had no first aid experience and couldn’t help.

“I’d rather die under a bridge than in some of those human-disposal houses,” said Suárez Soliz, who now lives with his son in a middle-class apartment.

Robin Rojas, a 64-year-old former salesman, is about to take a 200-mile, three-bus trip to reach a government bank because all of the ones near his home are closed — one had its electric wires stolen and the other ran out of cash.

“It is horrendous — the crisis is all over Venezuela. I never thought we were going to live like this,” Rojas said. “I never imagined such socialism in my country.”

The crisis has even taken a toll on retired professionals like Mario León, a 68-year-old former teacher.

He once could afford to take his three kids on holiday trips. Now, he appreciates it when they send him and his wife a few dollars from Canada, Ecuador and the United States, where they migrated to years ago.

“I need like 10 salaries to survive,” León said.

For some elderly Venezuelans, continuing to work is the only way to survive. Domingo Díaz is 82 but he’s still working, guarding nine vehicles outside the cathedral in the city’s downtown. A silver whistle is his only defense against burglars.

“I only make 4,000 or 5,000 bolivares per day, but it is good enough to bring home one fish, one plantain or some meat bones for me and my wife,” he said.

He’s been robbed twice recently. Last time, a couple of criminals threatened him with a knife and demanded his money when he was on his way home. He defended himself with a pipe. They didn’t get his money.

“I gave them a fight,” he said.

Buying medicine in Venezuela has become increasingly difficult — but for the elderly, it can be critical. María Soto, a 76-year-old retired school worker, has high blood pressure and kidney stones, among other ailments. Finding her medicine is hard, said Soto, who has five children. And paying for it takes a huge financial toll.

“I have to invest my entire pension on the medicines when we find them. They’re extremely expensive,” Soto said.

Yet there are others who remain convinced that things will get better with the current government. Orfelina Toro, 71, didn’t worry at all when she couldn’t find the medication she needs to treat her Parkinson’s disease.

“I was in bad shape, but kept my faith in God,” she said, while selling coffee, cookies and other items from her house. Her hand trembles when a customer asks for three cigarettes. Two of her grandchildren play nearby.

Toro is a staunch Chávez and Maduro supporter. “We have not suffered from hunger. The one who allows himself or herself to die in Venezuela is because he or she wants to,” she said.

And Rosa Acevedo, 71, a born-in-Colombia Chávez enthusiast, admits her financial situation is rough but she still thanks Chávez for her pension, house and Venezuelan ID.

“He gave me everything,” she said.

Then she adds: “Sometimes I run out of money. I used to sell cakes but I had to quit. One kilo of sugar or flour is very expensive nowadays.”

Soto, the elderly woman with multiple health complications, has no expectations that Venezuela will see a general improvement under Maduro.

“This is a tragedy. People say Maduro is a dictator, but he is so much worse. He is a starvation-maker,” she said, before heading out to look for her medicine.