A homemade Christmas dish is the latest casualty of Venezuela’s economic crisis

Maritza Díaz in Maracaibo, Venezuela, complained that the price of a kilo of cheese had doubled within a week. The country’s rampant inflation is upending traditional Christmas meals.
Maritza Díaz in Maracaibo, Venezuela, complained that the price of a kilo of cheese had doubled within a week. The country’s rampant inflation is upending traditional Christmas meals. Special to the Herald

Maritza Díaz, a 72-year-old homemaker, gapes at the prices of the products on display at La Limpia market in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city.

She’s sad, shocked, scandalized.

She doesn’t understand why a kilo of cheese — about 2.2 pounds — costs 200,000 bolivars on this day in mid-December, or about $2.20 at current exchange rates. Just two weeks ago, it cost less than $1.

The price of food in stores in Venezuela is doubling in a matter of days, even hours. Coffee, bread, sugar, spices — everything is going up amid the country’s crushing hyperinflation. That means Díaz and her extended family don’t have enough money to buy the ingredients of Venezuela’s most traditional Christmas dish: hallacas.

Hallacas are a kind of corn-flour tamale: banana leaves wrapped around a stew of beef, pork or chicken and boiled. Venezuelans say they taste like Christmas.

“We haven’t even said the word [hallaca] at home this year,” Díaz said. “The poor cannot afford this luxury.”

In the past, her family would gather every December to make up to 150 hallacas. They’re not only a Christmas and New Year’s dish, but it’s also customary to give them to friends and neighbors. Now the tradition is in danger of dying, a casualty of the financial crisis.

Venezuela boasts the world’s largest oil reserves, but its population is being suffocated by economic hardships. The socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro blames the crisis on “economic warfare” being waged by foreign agents. The opposition blames the situation on Maduro’s policies.

Jesus Casique, an economist, says the nation is in the eye of a hyper-inflationary hurricane. Many goods and services are seeing prices rise more than 50 percent per month. Annual inflation has been in the triple digits since 2015, and has increased this year by more than 500 percent. By some counts, inflation has surpassed 1,000 percent this year.

Read More: Venezuela’s hyperinflation roils once-rich nation

Díaz leaves the store convinced that this year, eating — or giving away — hallacas is a fantasy.

“Everything is very expensive and the thought of a ‘gift’ died a long time ago,” she said. “Now there are no hallacas even for oneself.”

Changing traditions

Nerio Ferrer, a retired 64-year-old accountant, remembers past Christmases in his home, when every December ended with food left over: dozens of hallacas, ham loaves, chicken stew and pastries.

That will change this year. “Right now, we do not have anything. We have to wait and see if there will be hallacas. What we earn is not enough for that,” he said. “There are nine of us in the family and in the past we made about 80 hallacas. [This year] we’re going to have to remove them from the menu.”

But people are trying to adapt. Norkari Novoa, a homemaker, said this year Christmas will be more like a summer holiday than a celebration of Christ’s birth or the New Year.

“We are going to rent a farm with a pool, right here in Maracaibo, to celebrate with the children, because we are short of money to buy them clothes or toys,” she said. “Before, we met as a family to make 250 hallacas, but this year we will not even have one.”

And the crisis is reaching those who work in the food industry as well. Mildred Sandoval, a professional chef and teacher at the Máximo Colina Gastronomic Center, said food orders this year have been thin.

Her regular customers have only ordered 30 hallacas during the first 10 days of the month. Last year at this time she’d received 300 orders for Christmas dinners from individuals and companies.

“People are demoralized. It doesn’t seem like Christmas in terms of the purchasing of gifts, clothes or food. There is not even an inkling of the Christmas spirit,” she said in the apartment where she usually works with two assistants making hallacas.

Last December, she sold each hallaca for 1,500 bolivars. Today, the cost of making an hallaca is 70,000 bolivars — a 4,500 percent increase in just 12 months.

The price of just one kilo of green olives — one of the usual ingredients — is about 1 million bolivars, more than five times the monthly minimum wage. Pork, which brings a touch of exquisite flavor to the hallacas, exceeds 220,000 bolivars per kilo.

Sandoval says that for almost a decade her husband used to prepare Christmas baskets, each with 20 hallacas, for the eight employees of his garage. They’ve been forced to suspend the tradition.

“We cannot give anything away this year,” she said.

Sandoval began buying ingredients to make hallacas as far back as August. Even so, she did not get enough raisins, chickpeas or capers for her orders.

“If you lack the oil or fat of those essential ingredients, the hallaca can be … very weak in flavor or dry,” she said.

Many Venezuelans have depended on the goodwill of others for their taste of hallacas at Christmas.

Antonio Herrera, a 60-year-old gas station attendant in Maracaibo, said friends from his 19 years of work there have given him hallacas during past holidays. There have been none so far this year.

“It’s going to be a bit difficult,” he said. “I do not think we’re going to eat them this year.”

Santa’s on a diet

Jose Joaquin Flores, the owner of the grocery store where Maritza Díaz shopped, sees the daily despair of Venezuelans at the increased prices of holiday foods.

The highest denomination bank note in Venezuela, 100,000 bolivars, or about $1 on the black market, is barely enough to afford one or two hallacas in these times, and it’s not enough to buy a kilo of sugar, corn or flour.

“A few people come here early to see what we have and then leave with nothing,” he said.

Dario Ramos sat in front of his butcher shop. Around him, many vendors were closed due to lack of merchandise.

Ramos was tired of losing sales, as he told people the prices of the few items he could stock.

“People say, ‘I just can’t,’ and then they walk away. These prices are a disaster. It’s like a coup against the people,” he said. “People are going to die of hunger.”

He’s angry with the national government for its constant regulations and price controls, which he says aggravate the food shortages.

“Saint Nicholas is skinny this year in Venezuela,” he said. “He lost weight.”