Venezuelan professionals turn to cooking and delivery to survive quarantine

Alonso Toro, a professional musician who worked in television and advertising, makes a face mask imprinted with the image of a dinosaur as a toy for children during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Caracas
Alonso Toro, a professional musician who worked in television and advertising, makes a face mask imprinted with the image of a dinosaur as a toy for children during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Caracas, Venezuela August 26, 2020. Picture taken August 26, 2020. REUTERS/Fausto Torrealba

October 14, 2020

By Corina Pons and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan professionals from biologists to lawyers have turned to making food and face masks or selling cleaning products as the coronavirus quarantine further weakens an economy already struggling under a six-year recession.

Facing annual inflation above 3,000% and the coronavirus-related shutdown of most businesses and state institutions, Venezuelans who spent years studying to become professionals have reinvented themselves as entrepreneurs who sell products – often for hard currency – to make ends meet in an increasingly dollarized economy.

“I had to do something to cover living expenses,” said Jose Ibarra, who started delivering cleaning products to homes because his salary as a social work professor is only around $4 a month.

“With some clients, I even schedule sales because some of them buy on the day they have water,” he said, referring to water rationing that affects most Venezuelans.

Millions of middle-class Latin Americans are being pulled into poverty as COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of the region’s social safety nets. [nL3N2EN44V]

But in Venezuela the situation has been exacerbated by the country’s economic crisis, which has seen nine out of ten middle class families fall into poverty over the last decade, and reduced the middle class to just 5.3% of the population, according to local firm Anova Policy Research.

U.S. sanctions are piling pressure on an economy reeling from mismanagement and hyperinflation, threatening to worsen a regional humanitarian crisis.

Alfonso Toro spent years writing music for television commercials and doing other jobs in advertising, but feels the industry has died.

He now makes face masks printed with the image of Indominus Rex, a fictional genetically modified dinosaur featured in the 2015 film “Jurassic World.”

“I think the time for entrepreneurship has come,” said Toro, whose home-made masks have gotten a warm reception on Twitter. “All my life I wanted to make toys, but I did not have time.”

REINVENTING YOURSELF TO STAY ALIVE

Some 43% of Venezuelan households have seen their incomes decline due to the effects of COVID-19 on the economy, according to the National Survey of Living Conditions, a study carried out by several Venezuelan universities.

“Some people, without leaving their jobs, looked for other sources of income, even though they have to overcome obstacles such as the lack of gasoline, transportation limitations or finding cash,” said sociologist Lissette Gonzalez, a professor at the Andres Bello Catholic University.

“While many have reinvented themselves, others have not been able to, and it makes them more vulnerable.”

Ruben Benitez, a lawyer with 13 years of experience who saw his income drop due to months of closure of the courts, started baking cakes to sell in stores.

“For many professionals, it is difficult to work in our areas. It has been difficult for us and the situation leads you to have to look after yourself,” said Benitez. “My livelihood now comes from cake sales.”

Lisbeth Lopez closed a small store that sold sweets in a shopping center in Ciudad Guayana in southern Venezuela due to the quarantine.

She started making and selling carpaccio – an appetizer of thinly sliced fish or meat – from lau lau, a fish native to the Orinoco river.

“If you have family, you cannot afford to get depressed… you have to reinvent yourself,” said Lopez, who uses the money from the carpaccio sales to pay school fees for her two children.

Julia Vizcaya, like Lopez, turned to the kitchen to survive the quarantine. For about four months she has been making and selling homemade ice cream.

She is an employee of a hotel that is closed due to the pandemic and still receives a minimum monthly salary, equivalent to $2. She gets by on deliveries of fruit ice cream and yogurt that she sells on social media.

“The income from the ice creams has been a relief,” she said.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas and Corina Pons in Caracas, additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)