HAVANA TIMES – Has anybody had any luck trying to explain the absurd?
How to explain that the minimum wage in a country is one dollar a month and that it’s been like this for several years?
How do you explain that people in this country are getting by on just a couple of dollars per month?
Does this situation form part of the magical realism landscape or is it just pure absurdity? Is it a combination of the two?
Anybody who isn’t Venezuelan and lives outside this country will be asking themselves – in disbelief a lot of the time – whether this information is in actual fact true.
Yep, I can confirm that the minimum wage in this country, today, is actually less than 1 USD. This figure is rounded off by the 0.5 USD payment of a food basket that is handed out once a month to those who work.
Here’s how its done
Now, for those of you don’t live here, there are many things I need to explain:
1- The government is interested in upholding starvation politics, which is something those of us who come from Cuba, or have lived under similar systems of government, know all too well.
2- Despite the demise of the State oil conglomerate, PDVSA, Venezuela has extraordinary mining potential, and this is what is filling part of the coffers of those who rule the country, as well as their allies.
3- If basic food items are three times above their real value because of mega inflation, selling them has become a lucrative business, especially when you are linked to the government in some way (or hold a government position).
4- A product made in Venezuela is a lot more expensive than an imported one because making it implies higher costs than crossing the border to Brazil or Colombia. This is why a lot less is being produced here, and anyone is able to sell imported food items for whatever price they deem fit.
5- Petrol is another market that has become a source of revenue. In greater and greater shortage, you must wait in line for several days or even weeks to get gasoline or pay those who are in control of it in dollars. Many people dedicate themselves to sitting in these lines and then selling petrol to buy food. The military and those close to them have a whole mafia around this business, and we already know how mafias work.
6- Basic services, which are no longer considered “basic” by the government – such as gas, telecommunications, electricity, etc. – are also a source of illegal income for workers who are unable to live off the minimum wage and “sell” their services or products “on the black market” in dollars.
7- I won’t mention drugs, I prefer not to upset anyone and, as a result, run into problems I’m not ready for. However, if we read the news or visit states with a coast or border with Colombia, we’ll see another source of revenue that is gaining more and more ground every day.
8- Many people don’t earn the minimum wage: I know that people who work in certain companies or ministries earn in dollars, and their wages can range between 40-70 USD per month, which isn’t legal. Of course, it continues to be a “wage” way below any other Latin American country.
9- Over 5 million Venezuelans have emigrated from the country over the past 4 to 5 years. At least a good lot of them send remittances back to their families.
10- The government hands out a bonus every month to those who own a “Homeland card”, which triples the minimum wage normally, that is to say it’s a bonus of 2-3 USD. This is also ridiculous, but it forms part of their subjugation politics.
11- Once a month, or every two months, they sell a basket for a “solidary” price, which includes a couple of kilos of rice, pasta and flour, and sometimes sugar and grains; it’s all poor quality but it at least helps those who receive it to suffer the battle of survival a little less.
Does that make sense?
I don’t know if you are able to begin to get your head around how Venezuelans live off 1 USD per month after what I’ve just said…
Let me give you an example: teachers aren’t giving classes in person right now, so they have free time to give private classes to students they know; a teacher can charge 2-5 USD per week for every student. This figure is an estimate because every teacher is free to charge whatever they choose.
The question you’ll immediately want to ask is: where do these parents get the money to pay for extra classes?
Let’s suppose that both parents earn just over the minimum wage, like the teacher. But perhaps the father knows how to mend shoes, which is a service in high-demand right now as you can imagine. And the mother might dedicate herself to online work outside of her working hours. Or maybe more simply yet, one of the parents is living outside Venezuela and is sending money back every month. Or maybe one of them works in a place that has access to medicine, for example, and sells the ones that are highly sought after for a price that helps them to get by with some kind of decency.
There is also the chance that they dedicate themselves to sitting in petrol lines (two, three days, a week even until the tanker comes) and charges those who don’t have the time or desire to wait so many days in line. Or maybe they have a member of the military in the family who helps them have access to petrol, selling a liter for 2-5 USD they are able to pay for a week’s worth of classes. Let me repeat, nobody is regulating the price of anything being sold here. The only thing that matters is how much the seller or customer needs it.
Like in Cuba, nobody really lives off their wages: it’s completely impossible. Do they steal to get by? Yes, a lot. But here, there is also the advantage of private property. There are still private companies and businesses whose owners and employees don’t receive a minimum wage, or receive extra payment in other ways.
Therefore, the most defenseless eat from garbage bins in Caracas (which is something I have seen since 2016, and I can’t say it’s common in other Venezuelan cities). Or they get sick and die, like the elderly or chronically sick; or they exchange their work for a meal.
In fact, I know professionals who have been forced right now to offer their knowledge in exchange for a meal, as one meal per day represents a lot more than the monthly minimum wage here.