Venezuela’s street barbers struggle to make ends meet

A man cuts a boy's hair on a street in Caracas, Venezuela

Caracas (AFP) – Under a bridge in a Caracas street market, barbers make their living with a razor, a mirror and a plastic chair, giving a brush-up to anyone who cannot afford to visit a salon in the crisis-hit country.

About a year ago, Gilbert Arteaga put up a painted sign announcing the spot as the Bolivarian Barbershop, the placard adorned with a picture of a rapper and the nineteenth-century Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar. 

Despite having been in the haircutting trade for 27 years, what he earned working in a barber shop was no longer enough to live off. Nor could he afford to open his own salon.

“In a store you have to pay rent. Not here,” he said. 

A haircut here costs 100,000 bolivars — the same price as an egg these days — if clients pay in cash, now in increasingly short supply. With a debit card, it costs 150,000, paid on a card reader loaned by neighboring store-owner. 

He gets around 15 customers a day. “Half my earnings go to food, the rest is for travel expenses. I live on a small farm around three hours from here,” he said.

Some clients thank him for reviving the old tradition of street barbers, he said.

– Fewer clients –

In a corner of the working class district of El Valle, Franklin Aguilera, 28, is also fighting back against the economic crisis by trimming beards and eyebrows. 

Under a faded yellow tarpaulin, he said he came here after his business in a mall went bust.

“We were five barbers renting a store but we never made any money, it was hidden away and we had to close,” he said. “You can’t work in a salon, it’s too expensive.” 

Franklin complained that the number of customers even here was dwindling because of a lack of cash, and he cannot afford an electronic card reader.

With inflation estimated by the IMF to be at 13,800 percent in 2018, meaningful amounts of cash are in short supply.

“I work every day but it’s not enough. I used to have 15 to 20 customers a day, but now its half that because people don’t have any cash,” he said.

Consecomercio, an organization representing private businesses, estimates that a third of Venezuela’s businesses have gone under in the past year due to the protracted economic crisis.

– Bargain – 

A street haircut costs 10 times less than in the average salon. Luis Guerrero, one of Gilbert’s customers who works in a clothes store, takes advantage of this bargain.

“You can’t go to a salon any more, it’s too expensive,” said the 26-year-old.

Maria Castillo was getting her nephew a 200,000 bolivar trim by a street barber in the working class neighborhood of Catia, where stylists work amid the noisy throng of street vendors.

Since banks only dispense 100,000 bolivars per day, she had to get up early two days running just to get the money for the boy’s haircut.

“We used to take him to a children’s barbershop but the prices doubled,” said the 29-year-old, who has taken to cutting her own father’s hair herself to save some money.

The precarious incomes of the street barbers has tempted some, like Franklin’s former business partner, to leave the country and seek a better life abroad, like thousands of Venezuelans have already done. But for the time being, others are staying put in the streets of Caracas.