Adriana drives through the streets of downtown Caracas while the city sleeps. She picks up customers through the Yummy app, the Venezuelan Uber. For a few months, this was the best-kept secret among the local micro-economy: demand was through the roof and a good night an alert worker could make around $60. But soon word spread and many people put their cars to work. Adriana’s customer pulls out a $20 bill to pay for the trip, which costs $17.
She pretends to search the glove compartment for change, but they both know how this ends. “Sorry, I don’t seem to have any change. Thanks, see you!” And she drives off $3 better off. Low denomination bills are scarce in the headlong capitalism that is gripping Venezuela. Everybody is thinking about money. Daily life is governed by greenbacks. The country, through Chavism, has moved on from the unsuccessful application of the Socialist Bolivarian revolution to a process of opening up branded in the forges of liberalism. The phenomenon has caused a mirage of economic recovery to appear.
Gone are the days of rigid controls. Up until very recently, Venezuelans hid their dollars because it was a crime to possess them beyond the watchful eye of the state. People had to queue for hours to buy rationed food at regulated prices and bolívars, the local currency, were few and far between. The panorama now is completely different. The use of the dollar as everyday currency, the lifting of price controls and tariff-free imports have changed the reality under which Venezuelans previously attempted to subsist.
Life in dollars, in which those who can afford to seek refuge, is also becoming more expensive and retailers have taken to camouflaging prices in non-denominated amounts with the abbreviation Ref, for reference.
Nobody knows how many hours Venezuelans waste every time they open their wallet. or if there is no other choice but to pay more for a product because they are only carrying devalued bolívars. In Venezuela’s convoluted economy, everything ends up being more expensive.
Paying for anything in Caracas creates scenes worthy of a Marx Brothers movie. Just paying for parking can be an odyssey. It is an island of consumerism in the middle of a precarious economy. Entrepreneurs are opening nightclubs, restaurants, supermarkets, stores and pharmacies. Internationally famous singers are returning to perform. One of the trendiest spots, Bar Caracas, has a price list identical to clubs in New York.
A recent study by consultant Think Anova has looked at the distribution of income in this new Venezuela bubble. “The income of 30% of the poorest section of the population fell or stagnated between 2020 and 2021, despite the fact that average income increased by 65% over the same period. In relative terms, only the richest 10% of the population improved their position in distribution. This ratifies that the results obtained unequivocally worsen income distribution in Venezuela.”
Ida Febres is a 31-year-old social communicator who says she is better off today than she was a few years ago because she no longer wonders where the next meal is coming from, but what she earns leaves noting for savings. “I earn more now because I work too much,” she says.