June 7, 2019 / 5:17 PM / 17 days ago

With Venezuela in collapse, towns slip into primitive isolation

PATANEMO, Venezuela (Reuters) - At the once-busy beach resort of Patanemo, tourism has evaporated over the last two years as Venezuela’s economic crisis has deepened and deteriorating cellphone service left visitors too afraid of robbery to brave the isolated roads.

A man weighs coffee beans, given as a means of payment, in a hardware store in Guarico, Venezuela April 24, 2019. Picture taken April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

Gone are the vendors who once walked the sands of the crescent-shaped beach hawking bathing suits and empanadas - a traditional savory pastry.

These days, its Caribbean shoreline flanked by forested hills receives a different type of visitor: people who walk 10 minutes from a nearby town carrying rice, plantains or bananas in hopes of exchanging them for the fishermen’s latest catch.

With bank notes made useless by hyperinflation, and no easy access to the debit card terminals widely used to conduct transactions in urban areas, residents of Patanemo rely mainly on barter.

It is just one of a growing number of rural towns slipping into isolation as Venezuela’s economy implodes amid a long-running political crisis.

From the peaks of the Andes to Venezuela’s sweltering southern savannahs, the collapse of basic services including power, telephone and internet has left many towns struggling to survive.

The subsistence economy stands in stark contrast to the oil boom years when abundance seeped into the most remote reaches of what was once Latin America’s richest nation.

“The fish that we catch is to exchange or give away,” said Yofran Arias, one of 15 fishermen who have grown accustomed to a rustic existence even though they live a 15-minute drive from Venezuela’s main port of Puerto Cabello.

“Money doesn’t buy anything so it’s better for people to bring food so we can give them fish,” he said, while cleaning bonefish, known for abundant bones and limited commercial value.

In visits to three villages across Venezuela, Reuters reporters saw residents exchanging fish, coffee beans and hand-picked fruit for essentials to make ends meet in an economy that shrank 48% during the first five years of President Nicolas Maduro’s government, according to recent central bank figures.

Venezuela’s crisis has taken a heavy toll on rural areas, where the number of households in poverty reached 74% in 2017 compared with 34% in the capital of Caracas, according to an annual survey called Encovi carried out by private Venezuelan universities.

Residents rarely travel to nearby cities, due to a lack of public transportation, growing fuel shortages and the prohibitive cost of consumer goods.

In some regions, travel requires negotiating roads barricaded by residents looking to steal from travelers. At one such roadblock in eastern Venezuela, a Reuters witness saw a driver fire gunshots in the air to disperse a crowd.

    “I haven’t been to the city center in almost two years. What would I do there? I don’t have enough (money) to buy a shirt or a pair of shorts,” said a fisherman in Patanemo who identified himself only as Luis.

“I’m better off here swapping things to survive.”

COFFEE FOR FUEL

Venezuela is suffering one of the worst economic collapses in modern history. Inflation has topped 1 million percent, according to figures released by the opposition-run congress. The United Nations says 4 million citizens have fled Venezuela, 3.3 million of them since 2015.

Maduro blames the situation on an “economic war” waged by his political adversaries as well as U.S. sanctions that have hobbled the oil industry and prevented his government from borrowing abroad.

The central bank in April released economic indicators for the first time in the nearly four years, showing a less severe cataclysm than figures published by congress. But the bank’s data underscored a dramatic contraction and spiraling consumer prices, nonetheless.

The bolivar has lost 99% of its value since Maduro took office in 2013.

In the mountains of the central state of Lara, residents of the town of Guarico this year found a different way of paying bills - coffee beans.

Residents of the coffee-growing region now exchange roasted beans for anything from haircuts to spare parts for agricultural machinery.

    “Based on the cost of the product, we agree with the customer on the kilos or number of bags of coffee that they have to pay,” said hardware store manager Haideliz Linares.

The transactions are based on a reference price for how much coffee fetches on the local market, Linares said. In April, one kilo (2.2 pounds) of beans was worth the equivalent of $3.00.

In El Tocuyo, another town in Lara state, three 100 kilo sacks of coffee buy 200 liters (53 gallons) of gasoline, which is in increasingly short supply in the OPEC nation due to chronic operational problems at state oil company PDVSA.

Slideshow (15 Images)

    In Borburata, another town a few miles from Patanemo, Keila Ovalles harvests eggplant, tomato and passion fruit in the backyard of her modest home. She said it was similar to the way her family lived in the early 20th century.

She stopped drinking coffee after being unable to pay for it, and now makes tea out of lemongrass instead.

“I tell the guys that I’m swapping passion fruit for something else, they spread the word and someone always comes,” said the 55-year-old woman.

Reporting by Corina Pons; additional reporting by Keren Torres in Guarico, Tibisay Romero in Valencia and Angus Berwick in Cumana; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown

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