Venezuela’s shortages and lines are epic. Photographer: Meridith Kohut/Bloomberg
A Day With the Buy-and-Flip Hustlers
Who Rule in Venezuela
They are called bachaqueros and they start their day at 2 a.m. They line up and sell everything, even their place in line.
She is up by 2 a.m., trudging down 12 flights in her housing project and over three blocks to a small pharmacy in eastern Caracas. This city is filled with danger at night but when Laura arrives, dozens are already there, holding their places in line with a practiced shrewdness. When the doors swing open at 7:30, hundreds of people elbow their way past security guards. Laura manages to find just one bottle of detergent and two bottles of shampoo. She’ll resell them hours later for 10 times their sticker price.
Venezuela’s shortages and lines are epic. Byzantine controls warp wages and distort commerce. Inflation is spiraling out of control. Whole industries are vanishing, a trend that only accelerated after the price of oil, the country’s lifeblood, fell by more than half. But within the incredibly shrinking economy, one business is thriving, spawning a new class of entrepreneurs, a new set of mothers of invention. They’re called bachaqueros. Laura, a 30-year-old former housecleaner, is one of them, buying up basic goods at government-set prices and hawking them privately in the black market.
Laura poses for a portrait before dawn at her home in a government housing project in Caracas. Photographer: Meridith Kohut/Bloomberg
“About a year ago, I realized I could make more from reselling a single packet of diapers than cleaning an entire house,” Laura said. She asked that her last name not be published since she is, in effect, part of a criminal network. (It’s illegal to sell some staples above official prices and the government sporadically cracks down on the practice.)
The term bachaquero, coined after leaf cutter ants (bachacos) that carry many times their weight on their backs, was first applied to smugglers along Venezuela’s western border years ago. Now it is a word heard everywhere. The Caracas polling firm Datanalisis says more than one-fourth of the population has engaged in the practice over the past year.
People wait in line overnight outside a grocery store that is known for getting daily shipments of government price-controlled goods. Photographer: Meridith Kohut/Bloomberg
Laura still works for the same people as before. But instead of scrubbing their floors, she sells them goods. She is part of a group of young mothers who grew up in the same slum and scour the capital for consumer items, texting one another to signal when a product hits store shelves, swapping goods for their clients.
“You’ve got to hustle to stay ahead,” Laura said as she left the pharmacy and headed straight to a nearby supermarket to pick through leftovers.
These days, it is not just slum dwellers who are looking for angles in Venezuela. Doctors and accountants moonlight as cooks at restaurants; teachers skip class to wait outside supermarkets. “It’s suffocating,” said Erik, 48, an elementary school teacher in southern Caracas, who withheld his last name for fear of reprisals.
With a salary that barely begins to cover grocery bills, Erik says he and his colleagues are often truant, using the time to wait in line. Venezuela’s institutions are being hollowed out. Thousands of professionals have not only left their posts but abandoned the country.
“Almost an entire generation of workers is being lost,” said Genny Zuniga, a sociologist at the Catholic University of Andres Bello.“It’s like a serpent eating its tail.”
Shoppers bang on the door of a supermarket, demanding it open. Photographer: Meridith Kohut/Bloomberg
The bachaqueros have developed their own ecosystem, rules and regulations.
Outside certain stores, the group organizes spots in line the day before, allowing some to sleep on park benches nearby, assuring them their places in line as opening hour approaches. Lists are made, enforcement is assured. That doesn’t mean everything always goes according to plan. Armed crooks have held up entire lines. A motor taxi driver, Yaseer Montero, recalled how he was waiting outside a nearby store last month when criminals pulled up at 3 a.m. and proceeded to take cash and cellphones from scores of people.
Still, spots near the front of the line have become so valuable that even they are now up for sale too. A good one typically fetches about 500 bolivars. That may not be much when measured in dollars -- somewhere around $1.25 -- but it’s not bad money in a country where the minimum wage is just over 15,000 bolivars a month. Marilin Barrios, a 27-year-old mother of four, arrived at the pharmacy well before Laura on this day, grabbed one of the first spots and sold it hours later.
In a system that mirrors the rationing implemented across communist countries last century, Venezuelans are allotted certain days of the week that they can purchase goods deemed most essential by the government. Laura waits in line but sends in her mother or husband at the last minute to make the actual purchases with their ID cards on the days when her number is not up.
Laura has spent much of her adult life waiting. After floods washed away her modest home on the outskirts of Caracas in 2010, she and her family endured three years in a one-room refuge until the government relocated her to public housing. Like many residents of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, she still speaks of the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez in mostly reverential terms. Her frustration is growing, though, as Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, struggles to contain the economic crisis.
“I’m grateful to Chavez, and I’m grateful for my home,” she said. “But I’m not grateful for the disaster he left us.
A year into her new career, Laura is feeling worn down. She’s put on weight -- the result, she says, of 14-hour days and bad eating habits -- and she’s grown sick of the daily shoving matches and the insults lobbed at her and other bachaqueros: freeloader, cheater, bum. She’d gladly go back to house-cleaning, she said, if it paid more. Meanwhile, the buy-and-flip market is only getting tougher.
“Every day there are more and more people,” she said. “Every day you line up, you start a little further back.”
—With Fabiola Zerpa