Chicken for diapers: Bartering abounds in scarcity-stricken Venezuela

Patrons line up on a supermarket parking lot in San Cristobal, Venezuela, in January.
Patrons line up on a supermarket parking lot in San Cristobal, Venezuela, in January. AP

Like many 16-year-olds, Yannilay Liendo spends the better part of her day glued to Facebook. However, unlike her peers, she’s not using the social media site to connect with friends or catch up on gossip — she’s trying to find diapers and formula for her baby.

Venezuela’s grinding economic crisis has generated a plethora of problems including triple-digit inflation, shortages of basic goods and massive lines at markets. But it’s also inspiring boot-strap solutions, including a growing number of bartering websites for desperate shoppers.

More than 14,000 people are following the Twitter handle @spvzla where medicine is traded and bartered. The Facebook page “Trueque Anti-Bachaqueros Caracas” — another popular swapping site — has more than 10,300 members. And the image sharing site Instagram has become the go-to place to find baby items. The page Mamaenapuros, or “Mom in a Jam,” for example, has more than 22,000 followers.

As Venezuela heads into key legislative elections Sunday, perhaps no issue is threatening the ruling party more than economic malaise. Plummeting oil prices have sapped the government’s ability to import items in a nation where about 70 percent of all goods come from abroad. In addition, Draconian price and currency controls, along with entrenched corruption, have created thriving black markets, where subsidized goods are hoarded and then sold for two and three times their official price.

As a result, while the nation boasts the world’s largest oil reserves, it’s having trouble keeping aspirin and car batteries on the shelves.

That has soured the national mood, and the majority of polls predict the opposition will win control of the National Assembly for the fist time in more than 15 years.

Liendo started her Facebook swapping site, called Super Anti-Bachaqueo Truekes, or, roughly, Super Anti-Gouger Swap, three months ago. On the first day of its launch, 300 people joined. There are now more than 1,100 members.

The innovation was a matter of desperation, she said. She could never find food in her neighborhood, but a nearby pharmacy often carried sought-after items like soap and shampoo.

“I used to have to wake up early in the morning to find what I needed,” she explained. “Now I just buy whatever I find.”

In a sense, the economy has turned everyone into a hoarder. On a recent weekday, when a shipment of tampons came into a local pharmacy in an upscale part of Caracas, business men on their lunch break were scooping them up by the handful. While some said they were taking them to their spouses, others said they hoped they might be able to trade them with friends for other toiletries.

Maria, 24, a reseller who asked for anonymity because re-selling is illegal, said stores in her neighborhood of central Caracas are adapting to the new buying habits by offering baskets of random bundled goods at a fixed price designed to be swapped on the secondary market.

The government quit releasing its monthly “scarcity index” at the beginning of 2014, when the rate hit 22 percent. But since then, analysts and shoppers say the problems only have gotten worse. Polls suggest that shortages are now the country’s top concern.

José Goméz, a 57-year-old public accountant, said it had been five days since he could find sugar or coffee.

“In my house we don’t even know what a bean looks like anymore,” he said. “It’s been eight months since I’ve been able to buy deodorant.”

The administration acknowledges the shortages but disputes the cause. President Nicolás Maduro has blamed opposition sabotage and international pressure for the crisis. In recent months, Venezuela has shut down the border with Colombia to fight smuggling, and rolled out even stricter price controls. Shoppers may go to only government-run stores on certain days, and expectant mothers and parents are often required to show sonograms and birth certificates to buy baby items.

Earlier this year, Maduro accused two unnamed opposition parties of running networks of bachaqueros, or re-sellers, “to wage war against the people.”

In a working-class Caracas suburb, a foot soldier in that war was wearing a glittery headband and had butterflies painted on her fingernails. Maria said she became a bachaquera almost three years ago out of sheer desperation. She needed to support her two children and couldn’t afford to wait in line. While many demonize her profession, she said she’s simply providing a service.

“Not everyone can stand in a line for six hours to buy two or three things,” she said. “If you’re in a line like that you can’t even go to work.”

Maria said she has a network of people inside government-run supermarkets who provide her with the products. A package of diapers that go for 62 bolivares (just under $10 at the official exchange rate) in government stores, will fetch 500 bolivares on the black-market, she said. Right now the hot items are chicken and baby formula, she said.

In some ways, bartering is deeply ingrained in Venezuela’s 21st-century socialism. The late President Hugo Chávez encouraged the creation of “Socialist Swap Markets” as he thumbed his nose at U.S. capitalism. And the cash-strapped but oil-rich country also has swapped its crude for medical services from Cuba, rice from Guyana and cattle from Nicaragua.

But this new wave of bartering comes from necessity rather than ideology.

About six months ago, Yolexis Bello, 31, said she spent five hours looking for diapers for her baby. Amid the frustration she used the messaging service WhatsApp to form a group called “Searching for Diapers.” It quickly hit its maximum capacity of 100 members.

Since she started the network, she said she rarely has to wait in line. She simply buys what’s easily available and finds someone else to swap with.

“We all help each other and we haven’t had to go to the bachaqueros,” she said.

Although she’s pleased with what she’s created, she said it’s not a solution.

“For me, the only solution is for this government to step aside,” she said. “Nothing they’re doing is working.”