Javier Gonzales and his friends know that the pelicans gliding above in the sky mean one thing: a chance for a good catch. Suddenly, the teen boys are racing along the beach following the trajectory of the birds’ movement. The teenagers need to get much closer to the spot where the birds are hunting in order to make their own catch.
The economic crisis in Venezuela has brought many Venezuelans back to seashore villages in search of food. These penniless fishermen use primitive tools and rely on “the feel” they have developed about the ocean and its surroundings.
“We have no boats, no fishing rods, but we have pelicans,” says the 17-year-old fisherman, Alexander Ramirez, one of the boys at the beach by the village of Osma, located in the northern state of Vargas.
As the teens scan the waters, they can see the pelicans tracking a school of sardines. This indicates the spot where the boys should fish. Positioned on the rocks protruding from the seabed, the fishermen launch their nylon lines, running hundreds of meters long with little hooks at the end, and wrapped around plastic discs held by the teens. For bait, they use prawns scooped up early in the morning in a nearby river.
The sardines attract large fish like jurel, a type of jack that can weigh as much as 25 pounds. The teens sell a kilogram of fish, 2.2 pounds, for around 20,000 bolivars, which at the current exchange rate is little over a dollar. So jurel can bring in a small fortune.
However, most of the time the fishermen catch smaller fish like a roncador, which weighs under a pound and is served on a typical fish plate in the Vargas restaurants.
The villages close to the ocean provide their inhabitants with a chance to sustain themselves. On good days, the fishermen can even make a little money, or exchange a fish for staples like corn flour, eggs or coffee.
Experts point to these local subsistence economies as the last resort to survive. They’ve developed in many parts of today’s Venezuela, where cash and credit cards are almost non-existent.
“There is a duality in the current Venezuelan economy: People who have access to the U.S. dollars and those who live in the world of the bolivar, the local money, which has no value whatsoever. These people suffer,” says economist Roberto Casanova, who is based in Caracas.
Javier Gonzales, 18, usually gives his catch, the swapped products, or the earned money to his aunt, little brother and cousin. They all live in the village of Osma.
Gonzales had only finished sixth grade when his mother sent him to Osma from the Vargas state capital, La Guaira. To help sustain their family, Gonzales’ mom needs her son to remain a devoted fisherman.
It is a secluded life here in Osma and other sleepy villages along the hundreds of miles of seashore that Venezuelans simply call La Costa, the coastline. The region offers a countless number of breathtaking beaches surrounded by thick tropical vegetation.
La Costa used to be a favorite area for foreign tourists and Caracas residents who would often drive down to Vargas to spend weekends on the local beaches. But the economic crisis and rampant crime killed off the tourism and few Caracas residents can afford trips to Vargas anymore, especially to remote places like Osma.
The end of the cash flow from tourism and wealthy Venezuelans has been devastating. In Osma and many other villages along the Caribbean Sea, most of the businesses have been forced to close as tourists disappeared, leaving in their wake dilapidated guesthouses and restaurants.
Javier and his young friends sometimes try to sell their catch to the few caraqueňos who decide to travel as far as Osma, an extra hour drive past popular beaches in and around La Guaira, a usual spot for the Caracas residents.
The teens have little luck with the big-city residents, as many visitors come to Osma with snacks in their coolers. The encounters are vivid reminders for Javier and his friends that the class division in today’s Venezuela is real and punishing, despite state claims that there is social justice in the country.
“If not for the crisis, I would still be with my mom in the big town,” Gonzales says as he contemplates the ocean that, as he puts it, has become his school.
“The Maduro government likes the idea of secluded places like Osma where people take care of their own needs. First, it takes pressure off the government to provide and second, these people won’t go protesting. They don’t have time and energy to do so,” says Casanova, the economist.
The young fishermen usually spend six to eight hours on the beach fishing everyday.
Marco Diaz, a 71-year-old fisherman, approves of the boys. Ramirez is his grandson.
He lives in a modest house in Osma and worries about what the teens would be doing otherwise in the face of widespread hunger:
“The fishing keeps them away from taking the wrong direction in life.”