CARACAS – What if I told you that in the socialist paradise of Venezuela, everyone’s a millionaire?
The Bolivarian Revolution has raised the minimum wage over 50 times throughout the past 20 years. As of May 2020, it’s been set at 400,000 bolivars, plus a 400,000 socialist food ticket bonus, bringing it to an astounding total of 800,000 bolivars per month.
Millions of people rely only on minimum wage incomes. The government keeps the number of people on minimum wage in the country largely under wraps, although everyone that works in the public sector is pretty much subject to minimum wage (salaries in the dwindling private sector are usually better-ish). The elderly under pension (4.5 million citizens as of a year ago) are also subject to it.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? I mean, that’s a pretty looking number — then you realize that those amount to approximately $4-5 USD per month, and the reality kicks in.
Hyperinflation, price controls, and barely symbolic minimum wage raises: these three elements have caused incalculable headaches to the citizens of Venezuela over the past decade, to the point that they’ve become borderline elements of our folklore amidst the ongoing collapse of socialist Venezuela.
It’s a repeat of the never-ending cycle that we’ve been entrapped for so many years now, except now it comes with a twist: The ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted everyone’s lives and has greatly exacerbated those three heads of the socialist hydra.
The added novelty, if it can be called that, is that the mandatory masks visually cover your astonishment (or lack thereof) when something you bought last week is suddenly twice as expensive.
What can you buy with this brand new minimum wage of 800,000 bolivars per month? Not much, really. Even though the bolivar received a facelift and a new currency scale in August 2018, we’re already at a point where spending millions on the most basic things shouldn’t be cause for concern.
I carried out my weekly supermarket grocery run on May 4 and I asked for 250 grams (a little more than half a pound) of the cheapest ham and cheese they had available, this is how much they went for:
That’s 633,356 bolivars right there. The cheapest loaf of sandwich bread that I could find went for 259,700 bolivars, bringing these three items to a whopping 893,056 bolivars – roughly $5 depending on the day’s exchange rate.
So, realistically, the minimum wage is so absurdly low that it’s not sufficient to make enough sandwiches for a month. Sure, you could find cheaper alternatives, but it’d still devour most of it.
These minimum wage raises used to be a matter of praise and celebration for the Bolivarian Revolution and its grotesque media machine – the below poster, for example, from dictator Nicolás Maduro’s state television propaganda outlet boasts of 47 minimum wage increases in the history of the socialist regime in Venezuela that began in 1999, as of January 2019.
— VTV CANAL 8 (@VTVcanal8) January 15, 2019
Two years ago, it was very common to have them occur almost every two months, which was akin to putting out a fire by spraying gasoline at it. Now that the damage is done, they come at a more sparse rate and are announced as discreetly as possible without any of the fanfare — yet the regime retains the sheer audacity of claiming that Venezuela is “the only country that has raised wages amidst the pandemic,” heralding $4 per month was some utopian socialist achievement.
— PSUV (@PartidoPSUV) April 28, 2020
While minimum wages have progressively grown, they never have amounted to much. It’s a cat (hyperinflation) and mouse (wages) game where the mouse is already dead from the get-go.
Around mid-September 2019, I purchased the same type of bread as in the above photo, except that the price at the time was 38,800 bolivars, not 259,700 bolivars. If we go by an average exchange rate at the time it was produced, it gives you roughly $1.75. The minimum wage at the time was 40,000 — or $1.80.
If we do the same conversion to the loaf of bread that I bought this week (259,700.00 with an exchange rate of 178,502.21) it gives you $1.45.
It would seem like the bread itself has gotten cheaper. Then again, in October 2019, the minimum wage was increased from 40,000 to 300,000 bolivars (150,000 bolivars plus a 150,000 “socialist basket ticket” food bonus). Going by an average exchange rate at the time it was introduced, the minimum wage translated to $14 per month.
All of these minimum wage increases have not only amounted to nothing, but whatever meager gains they have created are rapidly devoured by hyperinflation. Like I said, a game of cat and mouse where the mouse is already dead from the start.
Regardless of whether it’s $14 or $4 per month, the minimum wage is still way too insufficient to be able to live on with a modicum of normalcy — to the extent normalcy is even possible in Venezuela, because if you factor the constant blackouts, the water shortages, the obliterated healthcare system, the censorship, and everything else, then you realize that life in Socialist Venezuela is just a plain and outright miserable existence.
Depending on where you live and how lucky you are, you may be able to purchase a carton of 30 eggs – and that’s really stretching your luck – because in some places it’s already over 900,000 bolivars. This means that the majority of the country, including the elderly that rely on pensions, can’t even afford to purchase one egg per day, let alone medicine or any other kind of expense.
I still got a few left on my fridge. Restocking on eggs is a headache I’m saving for a later time.
It’s worth mentioning that after Socialism trashed the country’s economy, currency, and infrastructure, the only way some people are staying afloat (including yours truly) is through foreign currencies such as the U.S. dollar, the Euro, or even cryptocurrencies, not to mention a sprinkle of capitalism. Being able to openly buy and trade with foreign currency creates much-needed breathing room at the expense of those that do not have access to it, now that prices are being openly established and listed using the United States dollar as reference.
Social media has become a staple way for Venezuelans to buy and sell products outside the regulations of the socialist regime; such as this Instagram account, which sells several products (including cuts of meat that are hard to find in supermarkets) at a premium price.
Keeping minimum wages so absurdly low is part of the socialist plan, to keep you working for literally no remuneration while making sure you depend on their CLAP box handouts of questionable quality and other breadcrumbs distributed through the Chinese powered Fatherland Card system, tying your survival and that of your family on your perceived “loyalty” to the revolution.
It’s sickening, truly sickening and perverse.
Back in the earliest years of the 2010s, we all had to endure the draconian price controls that had been imposed on most basic goods as well, such as flour, oil, rice, sugar, butter, and toiletries.
Hugo Chávez (and then Maduro)’s regimes justified these controls ad nauseam, claiming that they were for the good of the people and all that ideological nonsense. What it ended up doing is creating widespread shortages, black markets, food smugglers, and the rise of a new form of entrepreneurship dubbed “bachaqueros” – people with access to scarce goods selling on the side.
Given all that has happened here over the past years, these controls had been eased and it gave everyone, both customers and companies, some sense of normalcy that was never meant to last. This is a socialist regime after all and socialist controls must be renewed, lest we forget who is in power.
The new list of “agreed-upon” prices comprises 27 categories, ranging from meat to salt. Their prices, set by the socialist regime, are way beyond what a minimum wage of 800,000 can cover. The list features the price of live beef (bovino en pie, or “bovine on foot”), as well as various cuts of meat and other animals.
Bovino en pie for cow meat costs 138,362.26 bolivars ($0.76) a kilogram, or about $1.67 a pound; the bull is slightly more expensive. Bone-in shank costs 380,496.23 bolivars ($2.09) a kilogram, or about $4.60 a pound. Sirloin (solomo) costs 605,334.91 bolivars ($3.33) a kilogram, or about $7.32 a pound. On the more expensive end, round cuts – bottom round and heel of round – both cost 657,220.75 bolivars ($3.61) a kilogram, or about $8 a pound.
Math has never been my forte, but I don’t see how one is able to purchase a reasonable amount of anything on this list with a minimum wage of $2-4 per month.
If coronavirus lockdowns (which continue to severely restrict our mobility around the city) hadn’t induced enough shortages over the past fifty days of quarantine, then these will surely do the trick.
Eggs, butter, and corn flour are the first three items on the list that I’ve started to note an absence of over the past week. Beef and chicken were already difficult to find when the pandemic hit. As with past years, you can always find these outside of supermarkets and stores — provided you’re willing to pay the price outside the regular channels. Ground beef is a luxury that not everyone can afford.
— CaraotaDigital (@CaraotaDigital) May 5, 2020
With these new regulations in place, I don’t really look forward to reliving those days where you had to rush to a place because they suddenly had a limited supply of butter (limit x number of bars per customer). Thankfully, the erstwhile mandatory fingerprint scanners that one had to press their thumbs on to make a purchase have been decommissioned or repurposed.
The harsh reality is that, beneath all of the regime’s charades and regarding their handling of coronavirus and the new bizarre failed incursion in the country taking over most of the regime’s media airspace over the past week, there’s a country where the majority of its people are starving now more than ever, most of which have lost their jobs due to the quarantine or are not able to work because of the lockdowns — right at the cusp of a brand new spin of the hyperinflationary and price control wheel.
People are tired of it all, but we’re all orphaned at the hands of an opposition that hasn’t, won’t, nor will ever produce results.
Christian K. Caruzo is a Venezuelan writer and documents life under socialism. You can follow him on Twitter here.