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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