HAVANA TIMES — Sebastian and Aurelia are two elderly persons I met a few months ago. Sebastian is about 70 years old and Aurelia is almost 90. They don’t know each other personally, but aside from their advanced age, they have something else in common: they both receive a state pension.
Once a month, Sebastian leaves his home, in the outskirts of Barquisimeto, in order to get to a bank in the city center. Sebastian doesn’t have a debit card, that’s why he goes to take out cash from Bicentenario, the government’s bank.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for a pensioner to receive their pension in whole with just one trip to the bank. The already normal lines are becoming more and more overwhelming and daunting. Getting to the bank and standing outside its doors at 6 or 7 AM is no longer enough. Sebastian normally asks a friend, who drives a water tanker truck, to take him in to the city at the strange time of 3 AM. When he reaches the Bicentenario bank at about 4 AM, there are already many elderly in its surroundings “taking their place” in the line, sitting on the pavement, on pieces of cardboard or on plastic chairs that are rented out by locals who are taking the risk, like them, of being robbed.
The reason is simple, there isn’t enough cash. At least that’s what managers and doormen at Venezuelan banks say. They hand out about 50 numbers, or they let people in until, suddenly, they announce that there is no more cash left; and for everyone to go home, to come and line up the next day… the next day… the next day… There is also a trend of only handing out 25 or 50% of the pensions. That’s why Sebastian prefers to take the risk in the early morning, so there is less of a chance of him losing the whole day in line… for nothing.
I kept Aurelia company the last time she went to take her pension out at a private bank. She does have a debit card, but as there isn’t anywhere to get cash out, sometimes she has to travel to the city to withdraw her pension. As it had been just over a week since money was being given to pensioners, the line to get in didn’t take longer than 2 hours.
Once inside, there were only three seats to wait your turn to go to a counter. There were over 50 people in the room fitted out for pensioners. All of them, except for me who was accompanying my friend because of her old age, were over 65 years old and several of them had canes. There were only three seats and one clerk handing out money. I then realized that the people who had collected their money remained inside the room, they didn’t go out onto the street like normal. They were piling up in a corner of the small room until someone came to unlock the closed door after about 25 minutes. The clerk announced that from now on, users must go onto the bank’s website and print off a piece of paper where they put in their name and card number when they come to get their money; the reason: the bank no longer has paper.
Meanwhile, more and more elderly were piling up by the door, missing their lunch, without even air conditioning in that room.
The clerk also announced that they only had 100,000 notes to pay pensions in. This new 100,000 bolivar bill has the strange characteristic of being the equivalent to a 100 bolivar bill. Only the color had changed very slightly (similar to the 50 bolivar note) and it doesn’t even have the three zeros after the number “100”, instead there is a small word under the number to differentiate it.
The other issue you have with this bill is that if you go shopping with it, you must first ask the seller if they have any cash to give you your change back. I remember the old times when you could go to the bank and ask, with total ease of mind, what denomination of bills you wanted to be paid in. However, none of these pensioners protest because up until a month ago, the normal thing was for tellers to hand out 10, 20, 50 and, in the best of cases, 100 bolivar bills. Can you imagine withdrawing 200,000 bolivars in (10,000) 20 bolivar bills? Then going out onto the street and trying to go unnoticed in the eyes of all those scroungers who are on the hunt for an easy prey, like someone over 60 years old.
After nearly two hours of waiting, we managed to get to the counter. We were lucky, cash hadn’t run out, they didn’t give us small denomination bills and my friend didn’t pass out because she was carrying a pack of biscuits hidden in her bag.