Hungry Venezuelans rely on work-for-food barter as economy spirals

A Venezuelan flag is seen during a demonstration to the streets of Caracas, Venezuela on November 30, 2017, to protest against the country's lack of medicine and general health crisis.
A Venezuelan flag is seen during a demonstration to the streets of Caracas, Venezuela on November 30, 2017, to protest against the country's lack of medicine and general health crisis. TNS

Leonard Altamar, a 41-year-old plumber, carries his tool box — and a kilo of imported pasta — as he walks into a high-end restaurant at a luxury mall in Maracaibo in western Venezuela.

The father of two won’t need the packaged food to fix the leak in one of the business’s flooded restrooms, but he wouldn’t leave the bag of pasta unprotected on his bike. It is a treasure he just earned.

“I just repaired a dishwasher and got paid with this spaghetti, a little bit of beef and 200,000 bolívares (or about $1.20). I began to accept this kind of payment in September. Doing this, at least my family can eat a little,” Altamar said.

The economic crisis in Venezuela has spiked in recent months. Inflation rates in the rich-in-oil country in 2017 topped a stunning 2,600 percent, according to the opposition-controlled legislature.

Venezuela’s tailspin has created poverty, personal insecurity, food scarcity, medicine shortages and money insufficiency. The situation has been labeled as a humanitarian crisis by opposition parties, foreign governments and Pope Francis.

Hunger is a common visitor in Altamar’s home. He lost eight kilos of weight — about 17 pounds — in just a few weeks last October. His sons are used to going to bed at night without a proper meal, he admitted.

Altamar has joined other Venezuelan workers who are now willing to accept groceries in exchange for their services. His father and two brothers, who offer electrical work and carpentry, also work for food.

“I have to adjust to the situation. I ask my customers ‘What do you have in your pantry?’ when we are discussing my fees. I’m a big fan of this kind of trading these days,” he said.

Flour, rice, vegetable oil, sugar, mayonnaise, sodas and personal-care items are appealing bargaining chips for him.

Housemaids, cab and bus drivers, carpenters, cobblers, nurses, car wash employees, retailers, and even professionals are willing to participate in the work-for-food trend to fight hunger as the nation contends with spiraling prices.

Leonard received about two kilos of corn flour — that’s about 4.4 pounds — two kilos of rice and one liter of vegetable oil last Friday from an old customer who did not have enough cash to pay him for plumbing work in her kitchen.

A phone call interrupts the interview. A regular client asks him to repair a water tank that has been malfunctioning. The plumber sets up the appointment for the next day. His price?

“Do you have any butter? That would do,” he tells the client.

Barter in socialist times

Late President Hugo Chávez, who ushered in Venezuela’s socialist era, dreamed in 2006 of an economic model that included bartering.

“There is a market that can be reactivated through barter and not through currency. Let us break that curse” of capitalism, he said in January 2006, standing alongside President Evo Morales of Bolivia.

Chávez even proposed a system where a commodity such as bananas could be traded for a couple of pounds of coffee or two chickens.

At the time, José Guerra, former head of Venezuela’s Central Bank, called the proposal “nonsense,” saying it promoted “a caveman economy.”

But the bartering in Venezuela now is far from an endorsement of Chávez’s idea. It’s a reaction to the collapse of Venezuela’s currency, explained Luis Crespo, economist and expert in currency and financial institutions.

“Our currency is destroyed and there is also general shortage. People want nothing to do with the bolívar and seize the opportunity of having access to products that are not easily found in markets. They are trying to fulfill their basic needs whatever way they can,” Crespo said.

A ‘win-win’ transaction

Fernando Aristiguieta, the 34-year-old owner of an accounting firm in San Francisco County, has two kinds of clients these days: the ones who pay with money and the ones who pay with food.

He began to accept payment in food — kilos of steak, chicken, butter, deodorants or other hard-to-get products — when the crisis started to demolish his family budget in the middle of 2017.

“It was a win-win situation for both me and the employer. I don’t pay excessive prices or have to get in line outside a supermarket for hours anymore,” he said.

Even his hairdresser accepts food for trims. Recently, he said, the stylist got into a fight with a customer who protested that a kilo of flour was good enough for two haircuts, not one.

Clients settle his monthly bill by allowing him to take products from their stores, he said.

“I never thought I would do this in my professional career. It is a necessity, more than a desire. We have to adapt to the crisis,” he said. “I find barter odd, though.”

Insufficient funds

Venezuelans earn food bonuses for working at some companies or public institutions. But the official minimum wage is still just 248.510 bolívares, or $1.48 — far from sufficient.

A four-member family generally would need 7 million bolívares to fulfill its nutritional needs, according to independent investigators from the Documentation and Social Analysis Center (Cendas).

Food keeps getting more and more unaffordable. The price for mayonnaise price, for example, increased 319 percent in just one month, the group reported. Sugar increased as much as 93 percent, fish 96 percent and vegetables 120 percent.

Food bags, an effort by Maduro’s administration to solve the hunger and shortage issues, aren’t enough help, some leaders say.

“One people’s starvation will not be structurally solved with food bags,” said Bishop Diego Padrón, president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference.

Food is gold in barter

Yajaira González, a 40-year-old teacher, used to obtain free medications and cream she needed for her diabetes in public hospitals. Not anymore.

Now, whenever she hears about inventory at nearby markets, she and her mother rush to line up for as many hours as necessary to purchase the scarce goods and exchange them for the drugs she needs.

One kilo of pasta might do it. “This Sunday, I exchanged 1  1/2 kilos of pasta for insulin … a fast-action treatment for my disease that’s hard to get,” she said.

Lack of cash can result in bartering, too. Mariangela de Romero, a 37-year-old mother of three, often includes rice, sugar or flour as part of weekly payments to her housekeeper because she runs out of currency.

But González, the teacher, says she always keeps a back-up stock of three kilos of pasta in case she needs it to barter. “I hope I won’t have to eat them out of necessity,” she said.

"The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing," President Donald Trump stated before the United Nations on Sept. 19, 2017. He later called on other countries to do more to address the crisis in Venezuela under the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro, which "has inflicted terrible misery and suffering on the good people of that country."