Purchasing power down as Venezuela’s currency sinks

Caracas, July 11

Origami-like boats made from Venezuela’s rapidly depreciating bolivar bills sit on the cash register of a small fruit and vegetable store in Caracas.

Cashier Marisol Garcia makes the bolivar boats to illustrate roaring inflation and the currency’s tumble on the black market, where even the country’s biggest bill is worth just 16 US cents.

“People ask: ‘What’s that?’ I say: ‘Our reality’,” explains Garcia, 44, as she rapidly counts wads of notes customers hand her for bananas, coconut juice and mangoes. “We’re sinking.”

A debilitating recession and a drop in oil prices have harmed the OPEC nation’s ability to provide dollars through its complex three-tiered currency control system, pushing up the black market rate at a dizzying speed. The bolivar sank past 600 per US dollar on Thursday, against 73 a year ago, according to anti-government website DolarToday.

“We’re behind. We’re going to have to make six little boats out of 100 bolivar bills,” added Garcia, who empties her cash register more than 20 times a day and stores notes in shoe boxes in a locked cabinet.

With prices rising almost before their eyes, some shoppers are sneering at coins, or enduring long queues at cash-machines where people are withdrawing over-and-over up to limits that do not keep up with price realities.

Credit cards or transfers are easier and safer in a nation rife with holdups and other violent crime.

Engineer Rafael Toro, 49, was robbed at gunpoint last week as he left a bank with 15,000 bolivars to purchase a car part, a tricky item to find in shortages-hit Venezuela. That’s twice the minimum monthly wage, roughly $2,381 at the strongest exchange rate of 6.3 bolivar per dollar, but around $25 on black market.

“Having cash in the street is catastrophic for security,” said Toro. “All I keep on me is enough for the bus.”

Though many basic goods and utilities are subsidised or price-fixed, Venezuelans are increasingly struggling to make ends meet as price increases gobble up their purchasing power.

“This is a nightmare,” said Beatriz Quintero, 58, standing in a supermarket, looking at her bill in aghast.