Hit by a spiralling recession, Venezuelans from all walks of life are making ends meet through the illicit trade of food, medicine and other state-subsidised goods
By Girish Gupta for Reuters
Clutching egg cartons on his shoulder, a young man wades precariously through a muddy river on Venezuela’s western jungle border, where a Colombian shopkeeper will happily buy them up. On a peninsula jutting into the Caribbean, a fisherman sails under the cover of darkness to the nearby island of Aruba carrying everything from fish to flour.
In neighbouring Guyana, miners and police officers drive vehicles fuelled by contraband gasoline from Venezuela.
Driven by a deepening economic crisis, smuggling across Venezuela’s land and maritime borders – as well as illicit domestic trading – has accelerated to unprecedented levels and is transforming society.
Smuggling has a centuries-old history here, but the combination of the socialist government’s generous subsidies and a currency collapse has given it a dramatic new impetus. As the formal economy tanks and businesses go under, people have turned in increasing numbers to illicit schemes to trade food, medicine and gasoline. Criminal gangs, the poor, professionals and government officials are all cashing in.
The most eye-catching subsidy is for gasoline. Filling a car costs just a few US cents. A 40,000-litre tank truck can be filled for $10 (£7) at the black market rate and sold in Colombia for about $20,000 – a profit of nearly 200,000%.
For many people facing recession and triple-digit inflation, it is a matter of survival. “We’re obliged to engage in contraband,” said Alejandra, 41, who once raised chickens but now smuggles fuel across fields into Colombia to help feed her six children. Previously, she earned roughly $10 a fortnight; now she earns far more in a day.
“Soldiers, teachers, engineers, doctors, dentists – all types of professional come here to sell gasoline because salaries aren’t worth anything,” added Alejandra, in the fields of Guanarito, metres from the border.
In interviews with scores of smugglers and visits to more than a dozen sites, from the western village of Boca del Grita to the eastern port of Güiria and the borders with Brazil and Guyana, Reuters saw evidence of widespread unchecked smuggling.
President Nicolas Máduro’s government says the illicit trade is worth more than $2bn a year and is bleeding Venezuela dry, with 30% of imported food, 40% of all goods and 100,000 barrels of oil smuggled out daily.
Blaming smugglers for worsening scarcity, Máduro last year closed crossings into Colombia; about 2,000 suspects were rounded up. The authorities nabbed two men smuggling 14,000 crabs to Trinidad, one man taking 57 tropical birds to Italy, and the owners of a sex shop trading “dangerous erotic products”. On a larger scale, Venezuela’s navy detained a state-owned oil tanker smuggling fuel.
Much of the smuggling arises from the abuse of subsidies, intended to help the poor, on an array of goods from flour to fuel. Smugglers buy these products and sell them on at inflated prices, not only in other countries but also domestically. Rice, for example, is officially priced at 16 bolivars a kilo, but food rationingmeans it can sell for 30 times that on Venezuela’s streets – and even more abroad.
Smuggling reduces the goods available to Venezuelans, thus worsening shortages. Frustration over shortages and the broader economic chaos led to a sweeping opposition victory in legislative elections last month, and even some socialists are clamouring for policy changes.
“I don’t mean the state has to renounce transferring subsidies to the poor, but the way it’s done promotes and creates the conditions for smuggling,” said Temir Porras, former aide to Máduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez.
Vast differences between Venezuela’s multiple exchange rates also fuel smuggling. There are three official rates: the strongest is 6.3 bolivars a dollar. On the black market, however, the dollar sells for about 900 bolivars.
Dozens of smugglers said officials are often either on the take themselves or turn a blind eye. At smuggling points, soldiers and policemen routinely fail to intervene as traffickers pass.
“We pay the National Guard a few thousand bolivars to get across, depending on what we have in the truck,” said one smuggler in the downtrodden western border town of Paraguachón, who moves food into Colombia in his pickup truck.
The government acknowledges some rotten apples in its ranks, but blames the chaos on an “economic war” by business groups and the opposition. Neither the National Guard nor government responded to requests for comment.
A year ago, smugglers would openly walk into Colombia carrying pasta, flour and vegetable oil, or drive across to have fuel siphoned out of their vehicles. Since the crackdown, they work surreptitiously, wading across rivers, using hidden tracks or paying discreet kickbacks along the 2,300 km (1,400 mile) border.
“It’s impossible to block the border. These are two countries which need each other, like husband and wife,” said shopkeeper Luis Olarte, 38, in the Colombian town of Puerto Santander, across a river from Boca del Grita. From toothpaste to eggs, he buys all his goods from smugglers.
Hundreds of miles to the east, in the Guyanese jungle town of Mabaruma, gasoline, flour, shampoo and other goods are brought across by boats. Flour marked only for sale in Venezuela is available in the markets of Guyana’s capital, Georgetown.
In the north-east Venezuelan state of Sucre, fishermen sell gas on the high seas. They pay less than a cent at the black market rate for 60-litre jerry cans and then sell them for roughly $10 each to seafarers, who scurry them off to nearby islands.
“They have to because a poor fisherman with a family doesn’t earn enough to survive,” said Manuel Gonzalez, 70, president of the local fishing association, in a beachside bar.
Aside from products smuggled abroad, price-controlled goods are also bought up and hawked internally for many times their official price. It is so common that a new word has entered Venezuela’s lexicon: “bachaquero”, named after a leaf-carrying ant. Bachaqueros line up time and again to buy subsidised goods for resale, mainly to the middle classes.
“We have contacts inside the supermarket and colleagues working at other locations who tell us what is arriving, when and where,” said a 24-year-old bachaquera outside a supermarket in the poor Caracas district of La Yaguara. “No one wants to line up for eight hours.”
So profitable is “bachaquero” that many Venezuelans have given up formal jobs to do it full time. The number of informal workers is set to rise a third, to 40% of the workforce this year, according to the local thinktank Ecoanalítica.
“[Smuggling] is very much a double-edged sword: subverting the formal economy and nurturing corruption, yet also an important coping strategy that helps people survive difficult times,” said Peter Andreas, whose 2013 bookSmuggler Nation charts the importance of contraband in US history.
Exchange rate spreads have also created some white-collar schemes. Bond traders, for instance, boasted huge profits a decade ago when some were able to obtain hard currency at preferential rates.
Hundreds of years before today’s bachaqueros and bond traders, smuggling flourished in the former Spanish colony. In the 18th century, Spain’s Royal Guipuzcoan Company was the sole legal buyer of Venezuelan goods ranging from coffee to coconuts. However, enterprising locals, using the same routes as today’s illicit traders, would smuggle them out for higher prices than the Spanish paid.
Today’s enterprising locals likewise see bypassing the state as the best way to stay afloat. At Las Piedras village on the north-western Falcon peninsula, a 25-year-old fisherman is preparing to smuggle fish, mayonnaise and butter to the island of Aruba. “This is the best work you can get in Venezuela!” he cries.
Fuente Original: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/jan/20/rice-drugs-dangerous-sex-toys-rise-of-smuggling-ailing-venezuela