Dispatches from Venezuela: A day out at the (black) market

From the notebook of Marketplace correspondent Scott Tong, on the ground in Venezuela.

We walked with purpose through the black market. The plan: to find, negotiate and purchase infant formula on the black market in Maracaibo, western Venezuela, research the goods for sale and how much, and stay out of trouble. But mostly get the formula.

It was for our hired driver. No Venezuelan seems immune from the shortage of basic goods: my translator Yesman asked for diapers from America. Photographer Jorge has to pay bootleg mark-up prices to feed his two Rottweiler puppies. And our hired driver in Maracaibo needs formula for his baby. Venezuela imports all these things, and now that oil prices have cratered it’s running out of Petrodollars to pay for these goods.

A physical black market, for illegal activity? So many transactions in the capital Caracas took place in the shadows. Sellers found buyers through private calls and texts, and closed chat groups on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Here it was all out in the open. The large covered structure — perhaps one football field large — served as an exchange for local berries, mangoes, papayas, chicken, beef, eggs, plantains, cheap Chinese shoes and knockoff Crocs. Further inside, sellers displayed bootleg product that back home would turn up in aisle 3 at Safeway: rice, cornflour, Pampers, birth control pills, toilet paper, detergent. We didn’t take any pictures inside, but here’s an idea of the items in high, high demand selling for high, high prices.

Bootleg goods on display. (Jorge Galino/Marketplace)

“Let’s walk quickly in and out,” Yesman advised. He sensed nervousness, staring eyes. Venezuela ranks high in crime, kidnapping. Yet that somehow didn’t stop him from shopping. There was good stuff here: baby Tylenol for his girl Isabella. Corn flour to make the daily breakfast of arepa corncakes. Coffee. “My grandmother wants me to bring some back,” he said.

The page from my notebook on the regulated v. black market prices.

At these prices? We jotted down the markups. If you wait in line all day at a government-run store, and there’s still coffee available, you can buy a small pack for 18 bolivars. That’s the state-mandated price. Here: 500. A kilo of spaghetti, normally 190 bolivars, goes for 900 here.

Jorge and I attempted some hurry-up math in the car. Average markup: 17x.

A couple oddities: one young woman had three bottles of Heinz ketchup for sale. It turns out Venezuelans dump it on everything, though the two domestic makers had stopped production. One could not source imported tomato paste, the other could not find imported bottle caps at a reasonable price. So it went black market. Another item we were looking for but no one had available: mosquito repellent in the midst of the country’s Zika virus outbreak.

As for infant formula, we came upon two cans of the brand the driver wanted. Normally 300 bolivars, it was offered for 4500 bs by one kid who looked like a teenager. Sellers kept the cans low-profile.

“You can get in big trouble selling this illegally,” Yesman said. We walked on, looking for a lower price, which turned out to be a very bad idea. The product was not to be found anywhere else, and when we returned 10 minutes later to buy it from the kid, he shook his head. Another desperate parent had apparently beat us to it.