First World Problems in Venezuela: Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That!

There is a reason we — Latin American countries and Venezuela in particular — are still called third world countries, sub-developed countries or, like we say in Spanish, “countries in the process of development.”

There are things we still haven’t figured out. There is also a reason why some problems are called “first world problems.” Why is it that these challenges are only affecting first world countries? Ain’t nobody got time for that? We are still struggling with more basic issues in Venezuela.

Lesson Number One: Currency Exchange Control

Once upon a time, Pedro, a regular Venezuelan guy was going to travel abroad. He went to the bank and asked the clerk to change 100,000 Bs into dollars for him, she took the money and gave him the equivalent in dollars. He traveled. The end.

This story is not possible in Venezuela. Why? The government controls any foreign currency that is in the country (even Bitcoins are a dark path to take).

It is illegal to earn, have, sell, exchange dollars in the country without the permission of the government. If you want to travel, you have to apply to buy them and pray to be selected. If you own a store and want to buy supplies abroad, you have to do the same. Infinite requirements and papers have to be filled and delivered to special institutions to have the opportunity to buy some dollars and pay your debts abroad.

The government controls who gets the dollars and they also control the amount of money that is allocated to food, medicine, and other important items. It is, therefore, a disaster.

Food: Right now Venezuela is going through an economic crisis that is affecting the quantity and quality of products that the state can import to supply the demand of the citizens. Ten years ago food was not an issue, we had lots of great products, and they were available at reasonable prices. Right now, since they (the government) have stolen so much money and the financial measures have failed miserably, the people are left without basic items, such as rice, meat, sugar, and beans. Supermarkets are sometimes forced to fill the shelves with one or two products because they cannot be left empty. Following a recipe can sometimes take you a week of groceries hunting, from one store to the other, to find the necessary ingredients for a cake.

Medicine: I already said the government controls who gets money for medicine. That means that many laboratories are left without the necessary currency to pay for their imports and therefore stop acquiring particular medicine (the ones the government has a fixed price for sale). Many other labs and companies have abandoned their business here in the country because it didn’t guarantee profit or benefits for them. If the laws of Venezuela do not protect the investors, they are obviously not going to stay just for charity.

So, here’s the thing. Venezuela sells oil to other countries, in dollars, but the government controls how this currency is used and spent. Our production sector is destroyed, that happens when you rely on oil for everything for so many years. So we have to buy most of our products from other countries, but it is challenging to get dollars from the government if you are a company, and almost impossible if you are a regular citizen. (I went to the bank to ask for traveler’s dollars, and they told me it is “suspended”).

The use of other currencies is so restricted that I told my mother that in other free countries you could get dollars from an ATM and she didn’t believe it.

What are we Doing?

Illegal stuff. Earning, buying and selling dollars and any other currency without the government permission. We just hope our government is so corrupt that they don’t start hunting every single Venezuelan who does it, they would have to find, fine and send to jail half of the population. We call them lettuce, we sell lettuce on Facebook, we buy lettuce through WhatsApp and so on and so forth.

Coming Back to First and Third World Problems

A few years ago I wrote on my Facebook wall, that I was going to find the bright side of everything. No car? I ride a bicycle and lose weight. No money for cookies? No diabetes. No cinema? I read. No meat? Go vegan. This was half irony half true back then.

Half irony because it was just a complaint about how difficult my life started to become in Venezuela, having a Master and working full-time and not being able to buy and have items that were normal for others at the same age and stage in life.

Half true because I have learned to rely on smaller things to be happy. The family has taken a more relevant place in my life, sharing, laughing and spending time together. Going for a walk and enjoying just a coffee with friends on the weekend is more than enough to feel relaxed and connected.

People say there is always calm after the storm and a light at the end of the tunnel. I am waiting for that, a moment to move on, progress, grow, produce and be able to have first world problems. Meanwhile, I battle inside the sinking ship to do something against the brave ocean and keep the ship floating. I may not live to see it; I hope my grandchildren do.

About Isabel Matos

Isabel is a Venezuelan translator that struggles to find a voice and to prosper in today’s political turmoil and tension. She is also an undergraduate English teacher and is currently pursuing a Master’s in English as a Foreign Language. Translator, teacher and always student, she is interested in how language shapes reality and how women and men negotiate power through discourse.

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