The economic catastrophe triggered by nearly two decades of socialist policies in Venezuela has rendered the nation’s political landscape unrecognizable.
It has also, however, deformed the face of the nation’s apolitical media, which are forced to cater to the needs of a population desperately trying to make ends meet. What were once among the most carefree pages of the nation’s newspapers—the lifestyle, health, fitness, and women’s interest sections—now boast “life hacks” designed to help families struggling to find basic goods like oil and flour.
Newspapers use their social media accounts to crowdsource the discovery of rare medications for families whose children are dying. For women fearing the potential arrival of another mouth to feed, outlets share DIY pregnancy tests they admit are not “approved by science.” For home cooks, newspaper share tips for how to avoid eating poisonous tubers when scavenging empty markets for what is left. For any Venezuelan trying to flee a country with a passport shortage, outlets share immigration and travel shortcuts on how to get out.
Last year, Venezuelan radio host Daniel Lara Farías tweeted, “It is so true that communism is hunger that a communist country has never developed a recipe.” A Twitter user joked back, “Except those in El Nacional: ‘how to make cake without flour,’ ‘how to make delicious pumpkin arepas.'”
Solo las de El Nacional: "Cómo hacer una torta sin harina…", "Cómo hacer deliciosas arepas de auyama…" https://t.co/TAY2dA9XBU
— Carlos G Trujillo C (@cgtrujilloc) May 8, 2017
One recently shared recipe, carried over from the women’s site Eme de Mujer, teaches how to “prepare a delicious chocolate cake without flour, sugar, or butter. Get excited to try it and surprise your family!” The recipe substitutes cornstarch for wheat flour and uses creamed rice for texture. While corn flour, a common ingredient in Venezuela’s popular arepas, has been on the list of most scarce basic food products in the country for years, cornstarch has taken its place and the place of many other goods, such as baby formula.
Eme de Mujer also suggests mixing cornstarch with carrot juice, yogurt, and water to create an “economic and effective” beautifying face mask.
For those who cannot find any starch or flour for their baked goods, another newspaper, El Diario de Caracas, published a recipe for bread without flour. “If you did not have time to go to the bakery, if yesterday’s bread wasn’t enough for today, or if you just prefer home cooking, this alternative can save your morning coffee or breakfast,” the recipe suggests. The recipe uses powdered milk and baking powder as a substitute for flour.
El Nacional has been sharing and promoting creative food content for years. In December 2016, for example, it shared a listicle of cheaper, easier to access foodstuffs that could help Venezuelans eat better for their money. The list included sardines, cheap mortadella, and yuca, a starchy tuber that is a staple of Caribbean and some African cuisine.
The listicle was published by the BBC before poisonous bitter yuca killed dozens of Venezuelans relying on the vegetable to survive. By March 2017, at least 28 had died of consuming bitter yuca, a species of yuca that is inedible and causes a complete deterioration of the digestive system and vital organs. The tragic deaths triggered a wave of helpful “life hack”-style articles on how to identify bitter yuca. El Nacional suggested biting into a tiny raw piece at marketplaces to ensure it had no raw flavor (edible raw yuca should taste essentially like flour) and not eating yuca that is difficult to peel or takes too long to soften while boiling.
On social media, El Nacional shares not only recipes for food and household products, but seeks out individuals who possess basic drugs that families cannot find on the market. A typical El Nacional medical tweet will read like this:
#ServicioPúblico Familia de bajos recursos. Señora de tercera edad muy humilde, necesita la siguiente pastilla de Quimioterapia AROMASIN DE 25 Miligramos favor comunicarse con el número. 04141271100 URGENTE.
— El Nacional (@ElNacionalWeb) February 8, 2018
“#PublicService Underprivileged family. Elderly woman, very humble, needs the following chemotherapy pill AROMASIN 25 milligrams please contact 04141271100 URGENT.”
Other publications have shared life hacks that do not necessarily feed any mouths. This week, the aggregation site La Patilla shared an article from October with a hack that allegedly uses toothpaste to reveal whether a woman is pregnant. If the toothpaste creates foam and changes color after being mixed in with a woman’s urine, she is pregnant, according to the trick. La Patilla is quick to note, “despite the growing popularity of this method, science denies its efficacy. The toothpaste tends not to change color, even if you are pregnant, while the foam appears in most cases due to contact between the acidity of the urine and alkalinity of the toothpaste.”
The hack also presents one more problem: toothpaste is hard to come by regularly in Venezuela—easier to find than pregnancy kits, birth control, or any pharmaceutical supply, but not guaranteed. In January 2016, the nation’s health minister told Venezuelans to become accustomed to brushing their teeth once a day, a sign the product had already been hard to find.
The dire situation the country faces has led many to find a way to leave the country. Venezuelan media have tips for that, too, particularly given that Venezuela ran out of paper and ink to print passports in October (suspiciously, whistleblowers contend that Venezuela had enough ink and paper to print thousands of passports for terror-tied Middle Eastern nationals out of its regional embassies for years).
For those seeking a way out without a passport, Venezuela al Día recommends going to Perú. “Perú is becoming an ideal destination for Venezuelans because minors can use basic health services, either in public hospitals or low-cost public programs.” Maduradas, another anti-regime site, merely lists the most enjoyable things to do in Venezuela before you leave.
Free Venezuela—the one before Hugo Chávez—developed a reputation as a tropical paradise known for its beauty queens and delicious food. Political activism, both within its borders and by the Venezuelan exile community, highlights the dramatic change in national character that socialism has triggered. Its lifestyle and society writers, struggling to impose normalcy in a time of chaos, prove just how deep the political wounds go, deforming far more than ideological affiliations and policy preferences.