Things That Matter

Giant Costco Products Are Popping Up On Shelves Across Venezuela And Many Are Left Wondering How

The relationship between the United States and Venezuela is perhaps the most confrontational it has ever been, as the Trump and Maduro administration often trade jabs on social media and through diplomatic channels. The United States is set on decimating the economy of the country by way of economic and trade sanctions, while the government led by Nicolás Maduro has definitely not made things easier for its citizens.

Measures of austerity and the fact that many foreign companies are fleeing the country has led to daily financial struggle and lack of even the most basic products for Venezuelans, many of whom have decided to flee to the United States, Australia and Europe if they belong to the elite, or to neighbouring Colombia as migrants if they have to survive as refugees. However, if Latin Americans set themselves apart for anything, it  is the creative ways in which we survive and find opportunities that few would spot.

An increasing influx of US products are flooding Venezuelan shelves.

Credit: Manaure Quintero / Reuters

But how is this possible if trade between the countries is practically at a standstill? Well, people have taken matters on their own hands. Venezuelan businessmen have established a distribution network of basic products such as non perishing food and toiletries bought in bulk at discount stores in Florida such as Costco. These products are then sent to Venezuela on a door to door delivery service. Once in Venezuela they are put on the shelves of bodega style shops called bodegones.

Reuters reports on how this informal economy works: “The products move in bulk via shipping companies with bases in south Florida who have this year enjoyed a 100% exemption of import duties and waiver of some paperwork at the Venezuelan end, the sources added.”

Because the formal commercial relationships between Venezuela and the US are stalled, this type of activity is possible and provides what Reuters calls an unlikely valve that relieves some pressure for Maduro’s government, which has led to an unprecedented lack of basic products such as toilet paper. 

Some of the shops are even named after the original United States stores.

Credit: Manaure Quintero / Reuters

This shop located in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, is named after Walmart, and we are sure that the headquarters in the United States are either unaware or don’t really care. Costco is not the only shop in which buyers in the United States acquire goods to send to Venezuela (for a fee, of course). There are services through which Venezuelas can mail goods to United States addresses from shops like Target. This is a type of informal economy that has boomed due to the scarcity of local products.

However, let’s keep in mind that the social gap is huge, perhaps insurmountable at this point, and that these products are sold at hefty prices that few can afford. As Reuters reports: “Though the goods in the corner-shops are out of reach for most bolivar-earning Venezuelans, a well-heeled elite with dollars makes for a viable business in indulgence products.”

Hector Mambe, owner of this Mini Walmart, told Reuters: “Everything our customers want from the United Sates, we’ve managed to offer here!”

The response of US companies? Deaf silence. As Reuters informs us: “Costco declined to comment, while Walmart did not respond to a request. Venezuela’s Information Ministry, tax authority and state port agency also did not respond to requests for comment.” Business seems to be booming right?

And many of these shops are dollar-only.

Credit: Manaure Quintero / Reuters

As the Bolivar depreciated, Maduro lifted the ban on dollar transactions. Just like happened in socialist Cuba before with tourist-only shops, there are establishments in Venezuela that only trade in US dollars, which is counter intuitive to the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the post-Chavez Venezuela. Other Global South economies have relied in the US dollar in the past, such as Cambodia, where the booming tourist industry trades almost exclusively in the foreign currency. 

And this practice is out in the open, it has ceased to be secretive, and people are criticizing it.

Timothy Aeppel, a journalist for Reuters, stresses the irony of not being to buy medicine in the country, but cake mix is now available if you have the cash. One of the many contradictions of the Maduro regime. Even though the government still has some support from fellow socialist nations in South America and elsewhere, even the most fierce defenders of the Venezuela Chavista sometimes find it hard to justify the economic decisions that have led the South American nation to a generalized state of anxiety and desperation.

While others think that this only serves the elites.

Yes, there are more products available now due to this strange availability of US brands, but is this another way of just perpetuating the class differentials between those who support Maduro and those who oppose him?

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Behind On Rent, Some Undocumented Residents Are Self-Evicting Rather Than Risking The Legal System

Things That Matter

Behind On Rent, Some Undocumented Residents Are Self-Evicting Rather Than Risking The Legal System

Brandon Bell / Getty Images

Eviction is a terrifying prospect. Even more so amid a global pandemic and economic uncertainty. Imagine losing your house – a place you’ve called home with your family for months or even years. Unfortunately, it’s a reality that millions are facing as the Coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on the global economy, millions are plunged into unemployment, and millions more struggle to make ends meet – including the most basic necessity of paying the rent.

Several cities and states have enacted temporary rent freezes or holds on evictions but landlords are still threatening their renters with evictions. Some of the most vulnerable communities – such as undocumented residents – are left feeling hopeless and with no where to turn since they may be afraid to seek legal help and have less access to government-funded resources. As a result, many undocumented residents are choosing to self-evict rather than risk going up against a hostile legal system.

A new report details how many undocumented migrants are choosing to self-evict instead of fighting back.

The Texas Tribune published a feature story on a hard-to-track aspect of the coronavirus pandemic: Undocumented immigrants are “self-evicting” from apartments, even while eviction moratoriums are in place, out of fear of retribution. 

“On paper, an undocumented tenant has the same rights as anyone else during the eviction process,” the report says. “But housing attorneys and tenant and immigration advocates say undocumented immigrants are frequently hesitant to exercise those options. Their fear of the legal system and lack of access to government-funded financial help prompt many to self-evict, or prematurely leave the property.”

In some cases, undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for certain government assistance programs that could help them keep up with rent or remain in their homes, the report says. In other cases, some are afraid to seek assistance because they don’t want to attract attention from immigration officials, according to the report.

Because of that, some undocumented immigrants choose to leave their homes even before a formal eviction is filed, turning to family members and community organizations for emergency housing. Immigrants have also lost their jobs at higher rates during the pandemic than other groups.

The legal system is a hostile one towards undocumented residents and help perpetuate fear in the community.

As the Coronavirus pandemic’s economic effects began to be felt across the country, many renters found temporary relief in eviction moratoriums, federal pandemic relief payments, unemployment checks and rental assistance programs. Undocumented migrants, though, either don’t qualify for such aid or are afraid that merely seeking it will alert immigration authorities to their presence in a country whose president has called some immigrants “animals,” makes racist remarks and consistently tries to create barriers for migrants.

Meanwhile, courthouses are intimidating places. And the mere idea that ICE officials are sometimes present in them (and they have indeed arrested undocumented immigrants who have shown up for court hearings that a unrelated to their immigration status) has left many too fearful to even attempt a legal challenge to a potential eviction.

For some, it’s also a language barrier as not all legal systems provide bilingual services.

In the report, Adriana Godines, of Dallas Area Interfaith, says that “When they want to ask for help from a nonprofit, and the staff only speaks English, they feel intimidated and don’t want to go on.” She adds “Even if I tell them that there will be no problem and they won’t ask for your Social Security, they prefer not to [ask for help].”

And even people who go to the justice of the peace courts, where eviction cases are heard, face similar hurdles.

“A lot of JP courts won’t have bilingual speakers,” said Lizbeth Parra-Davila, a housing fellow at the University of Texas School of Law. “Throughout Texas, that has been the case where I’ll call JP courts and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, we don’t have any Spanish speakers. We don’t have any Spanish interpreters.”

However, there are resources out there for undocumented residents facing evictions.

Credit: Bebeto Matthews / Getty Images

States from California to Connecticut have implemented varying degrees of aide to undocumented immigrants within their states. In Connecticut for example, the state has issued a $1 million fund aimed at supporting immigrants with rent payments. In California, the state is working to make unemployment benefits available to undocumented residents, which would go a long way in helping people pay their rent. The state has also launched a fund that provides up to $1,000 in financial assistance to undocumented residents in the state. You can learn more here.

NAKASEC’s Emergency Mutual Aid Fund will provide up to $500 in financial assistance, you can find the application here.

There are many other programs available to the community in states all across the country. Several resources are detailed further at InformedImmigrant.com.

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First Their Food Samples, Now Costco’s Canceled Their Sheet Cakes— What Next The Apocalypse?

Things That Matter

First Their Food Samples, Now Costco’s Canceled Their Sheet Cakes— What Next The Apocalypse?

Tim Boyle / Getty

Life’s rough for a Costco customer these days.

Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, card-carrying Costco lovers have faced product restrictions, long lines, and the suspension of food samples. Now the membership-only warehouse has eliminated their iconic half-sheet cakes.

You know. The delicious sugary cakes that have been there for you for every birthday, pool party, and graduation. Even worse? the blow comes right on the heels of July 4th.

Costco quietly put a halt to selling the $20 half-sheet cakes in all of its stores.

The brand has instead been steering to customers toward its 10-inch round cakes and their other baked goods. Outraged customers were quick to spark complaints on Twitter and Facebook promoting the brand to explain in a statement to its Facebook account. “To help limit personal contact and create more space for social distancing, Costco has reduced service in some departments,” Costco wrote on their Facebook page. In a statement to CNN Business, Costco confirmed it’s not selling the half-sheet cakes anymore but has “no immediate plans” to bring it back.

The decision corresponds with recommendations from various US states and health agencies to avoid or prohibit large gatherings amid the current Covid-19 pandemic. Real fans of Costco’s sheet cakes know that they serve about 50 people. And while of course, we know that the store’s decision to promote social distancing is a good one, we still can mourn the indefinite loss of one of America’s greatest comfort foods.

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