As the Venezuela economy crumbles its citizens are turning to barter as a way of survival.
The other day, I made a baguette-for-parking swap. It worked out brilliantly. I had time but, as usual, no bolivars. The attendant at the cash-only lot had some bills but no chance to leave his post during the fleeting moments the bakery nearby put his favorite bread on sale. The deal: He let me leave my car, and I came back with an extra loaf, acquired with my debit card. He reimbursed me—giving me a bonus of spare change for my pocket.
That’s how we make do in our collapsing economy. If somebody has lots of one thing and too little of another, an arrangement can be made. I’ve exchanged corn meal for rice with friends from high school, eggs for cooking oil with my sister-in-law. Street vendors barter, too, taking, say, a kilo of sugar as payment for one of flour. There are Facebook pages and chat-room groups devoted to the swap-ability of everything from toothpaste to baby formula.
A barber in the countryside cuts hair for yuccas, bananas or eggs. Moto-taxi drivers will get you where you need to go for carton of cigarettes. The owners of one of my favorite Mexican restaurants offer a plate of burritos, enchiladas, tamal and tacos in return for a few packages of paper napkins. At a fast-food joint near my office, the guy working the register let me walk away with a carry-out order of chicken, rice and vegetables without paying the other day, relying on my promise to come back with the 800,000 bolivars.
Acting on that kind of trust was unheard of just a few years ago. Charity is also something new. I didn’t grow up with the traditions of canned-food drives and volunteerism that are common in the U.S. Now parents from my kids’ school collect clothes for the poor, and neighbors gather toys for a children’s hospital. My friend Lidia, a property-rights lawyer, delivers homemade soup to the homeless.
I like to think of all of this as a noble expression of solidarity, as evidence of the decency of my fellow caraquenos at a time of mind-numbing shortages of basic goods and exploding inflation. I know that in most cases the motivation is necessity, even desperation. But that’s all right. Handing that freshly baked baguette to the parking lot attendant made both of us smile, even if for just a second.