Hungry Venezuelans are selling gold rings and family heirlooms just to buy groceries

Special to the Miami Herald

Arelis Torres, a retired university worker in her 60s, walked up to the counter of a fancy pawnshop on 72nd Street in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, and placed her gold graduation ring on top of the glass.

“I’d like to sell this, please,” she told an employee. The man placed the ring on a scale to weigh it as Torres tried not to cry.

She had bought the piece of jewelry decades ago. The ring reminded her of one of her biggest life achievements. It made her proud.

Pawn shops on Delicias Street in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Venezuelans bring their jewelry and family heirlooms for cash to buy food as they struggle to survive in the country’s spiraling economy. Gustavo Ocando Alex Special to the Miami Herald

She had to sell it, though. Her monthly income was not enough to buy food for her and her family.

At the end of the transaction, Torres, former manager of a library at the University of Zulia, received several thousand bolivares — enough money for flour, rice, beef and grain to feed her family for the next 20 days.

“It hurt me like hell, but things got harder this year in the country. Many from my family have had to do the same in recent months to survive,” she said.

Like Torres, hundreds of middle-class Venezuelans are starting to see pawnshops as a way to raise money for basics — like food — in a country plagued by hyperinflation.

Venezuelans sell gold and silver chains, bracelets, earrings — including pieces that have belonged to their families for decades or generations — so they can walk out the door of the pawnshop with enough money simply to eat, at least for a while.

Some get rid of their family jewels to pay for other necessities like school registration for their children, oil changes for the car, dental procedures or healthcare.

Torres found a temporary solution by trading her most precious possession, but she still struggles to buy groceries. Money is so tight that she’s tempted to sell the only piece of jewelry remaining: a silver ring her godmother gave her before she died.

“I’ll hate to sell it, but maybe I’ll have to if the day comes where I have nothing to eat at all,” she said.

Melting down

Gregorio Aldana, the 40-year-old owner of three pawnshops in Maracaibo’s downtown, estimates that 9 out of every 10 customers he sees are having financial problems due to the country’s economic crisis.

“They’re all in need,” he said, sitting behind a worn desk, while a 65-year-old former teacher displays a bunch of white gold rings to one of his employees.

Some customers even make visits to the pawnshop a regular thing, selling their gold chains in chunks, one small piece at a time, to manage a monthly income for food and basic economic needs, he said.

He recently paid 7,300 bolivares per gram of gold to one of his customers, around $20, much less than what foreign markets would pay. The amount of money also depends on the quality of the gold: the higher the karat, the better.

Payments can be made in cash or be wired to the seller’s foreign or domestic account in bolivares, Colombian pesos or U.S. currency. Most of the time, buyers melt the pieces right away. A few resell them.

Aldana said he’s doing much better as a pawnshop owner than when he was selling jeans and shirts in a nearby store. “Buying gold is a more prosperous business,” he said.

While Venezuelans are selling their jewelry to feed their families, their government seems to be encouraging them to do the opposite: invest in precious metal. President Nicolás Maduro launched a program last August that encourages the elderly who depend on official pensions, employees at public institutions and others to put their savings into gold.

“I don’t want the people to waste all of their year-end bonuses. Let’s save in gold,” Maduro said in a televised address.

The government is offering gold bars for sale to the people: 1.5 grams for 3,780 bolivares, about $10. That’s twice the amount of the average monthly income for Venezuelans.

But the government’s plan is an illusion, said Luis Crespo, an economist and professor at Central University of Venezuela. “Incomes and assets from Venezuelan families are being shattered amid our hyperinflation, especially in the last 90 days,” he said.

He said hyperinflation is taking a toll on the mental state of Venezuelans. “It’s affecting our emotional stability,” he said.

Virginia Álvarez, a 43-year-old Venezuelan teacher, said her family has had to sell the trinkets her grandfather, a jeweler, gave them as gifts over the years.

“We’ve sold almost everything to pay debts. My aunt had to sell my grandfathers’ wedding rings to pay for her chemotherapy,” she said.

No regrets

A small gold chain with a crucifix helped to pay half of the budget to install metal security bars on the windows of the Delgado family’s apartment last October.

José Vicente Delgado, a lawyer, said it caused him “pain” to sell a gold trader the 40-gram piece, which belonged to one of his daughters.

Back in 2015, he had to sell three graduation rings — one was his wife’s, one was their daughter’s and one was his — to afford plane tickets for their two daughters to move to United States, away from the Venezuelan economic and political crisis. “It’s harsh. I don’t regret it, but I feel sadness of having the necessity to sell them,” he said.

Lucille Bassinger, a biologist, followed the example of her friends and sold several little gold pieces she owned. “Our profit went entirely to grocery shopping. I just kept two pieces of jewelry from my baptism that had my name engraved,” she said.

Food was also the top priority for Liliana Arreaza, a 66-year-old lawyer, when she started to sell in 2015 every single piece of gold and silver her family possessed.

“I sold a necklace that my parents gave me in 1975 as a graduation present. I sold my wedding ring from 1976. I did not invest what I earned in household appliances. All of it went to food,” said Arreaza.

Arreaza’s list of pawned items is long: a necklace made of Italian gold, silver trays, cutlery, and all of her mother’s gold. Her latest deal was just four months ago. “Those sales hurt me deeply,” she said.

She said there will be food on her table this Christmas, but she will have to manage without a trip to the pawnshop. “I actually have nothing else to sell anymore,” she said.