New York Venezuelans Attempt to Help Compatriots

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Patrons dining at El Cocotero. (Natasha Payés. NY City Lens)

Last October, Criss Perez flew to Venezuela. Her carry-on luggage carried clothes and personal toiletries, but the rest of her luggage—two large suitcases—held products that her grandmother and immediate family asked her to bring: soap, shampoo, and medicine. “I felt like Santa Claus,” she said.

Shipping items to her family is not an option, Perez said. Not only is it expensive to send goods through the mail, but also there is no guarantee that supplies will reach home, because of theft.

These days, Venezuelans are in need of the most basic consumer items. And their relatives and compatriots in New York City are trying to help.

Venezuela’s economy is in shambles because of two primary factors: high inflation rates and low oil prices. Although Venezuela has an abundance of crude oil, which is the country’s main export, oil prices have plummeted globally. These days, a barrel of oil costs about $52; six months ago a barrel went for $95, according to the NASDAQ website. As a result of this drop, the country cannot depend on this resource to purchase imported products like wheat and milk.

Perez, 25, a waitress at a Venezuelan restaurant called Arepas Café in Astoria, Queens, visited home in June and October of last year. She said she saw how the poor economy impacted Venezuelans. People stood in line for hours at supermarkets, hoping to get their hands on basic staples like chicken, deodorant, and pampers. Sometimes items were in stock, but often they were not, she said. At one market, Perez said it was like Black Friday in America—customers charged into the store snatching supplies off shelves.

When supermarkets run of out items, many Venezuelans resort to shopping for goods on the black market—if they can afford it. Venezuela has three currency exchange rates legislated by the government: a fixed rate and two others called the Sicad I and II. (The Sicad system allows individuals and institutions to buy and sell foreign monies.) Although the fixed currency rate is 6.3 Bolivars to one U.S. dollar, much of the country uses the Sicad II exchange rate, which equals 50 Bolivars for one U.S. dollar, according to Espiñera Pacheco and Associates, an economic consulting firm based in Venezuela.

Even so, black market vendors do not use the Sicad exchange rates. Perez said the exchange rate is closer to 180 Bolivars for one U.S. dollar. If minimum wage for the country amounts to approximately 4,250 Bolivars per month, as quoted on Venezulanlaysis.com, that calculates to $24 at black market rates.

Luis Quintero, owner of El Cocotero, a Venezuelan restaurant in Manhattan, said his family back home is constantly hunting for food at various grocery stores and on the black market. Sometimes they leave work early just to shop for food. “It’s really bad,” he said. “It’s like a Cuba regime.”

In the past, Quintero, 55, said he tried sending items to his family back home, mostly cousins and aunts, but it was not effective. Shipped items never reached the family’s doorstep, so he stopped. “That’s the frustrating part of living in New York,” he said.

Luckily for Quintero, he is able to rely on organizations like SOS Venezuela and Programa de Ayuda Humanitaria Para Venezuela (Humanitarian Help for Venezuela) to provide aid to fellow compatriots. Janeth Aviles is the New York coordinator for Ayuda Humanitaria. On a weekly basis, Aviles, 49, travels to restaurants, clinics, and friends’ homes asking for monetary and medical donations. Ibuprofen, aspirin, and sulfur soap are some of the items that are always in high demand, she said.

Aviles could not give details about how donated items were shipped and received in the country because it would jeopardize the organization’s process, but she said there are volunteers all over the country sending aid.

“We need to rebuild the country because soon, we’re going to be collecting food. Believe me,” said Aviles.

Marisol Dieguez, 50, the Florida coordinator for Ayuda Humanitaria, also refrained from discussing how donated items were shipped to Venezuela. She said the organization sends close to 200 boxes every month, each weighing about 30 pounds. But donations have dwindled in the months after the major student protest against the government in February last year, she said. As time goes on, fewer people—not just Venezuelans—are donating, said Dieguez. Last year around this time, the organization sent 200,000 pounds of medical supplies and medicine to Venezuelans who were in dire need. Now, volunteers have to work even harder to get donations.

“It’s a disaster. I never imagined my country would be like this,” said Dieguez.

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