The Blue House brothel in Puerto Cabello is clean and well-kept, with a patio and kitchen where women get three meals a day. Outside, the smell of sewage pervades the city’s squares and cobblestoned streets, littered with piles of garbage. In Venezuela’s biggest port, prostitution, which is legal, is a boom industry because the residents at the Blue House—and other sex workers—have become dealers in currency exchange. The prostitutes are paid in dollars by visiting foreign sailors.
Venezuela’s contracting economy has led to a free fall of the bolivar—the local currency—and steep inflation. Prostitutes more than double their earnings by moonlighting as currency traders. “We got dollars to afford the things our families need, but we have to sell our bodies for it,” says Elena, who uses an alias to protect her identity. She crosses the legal line, however, when she sells the dollars she earns from sailors to local businessmen, who stop by the brothel to get hard currency they need for trips abroad. With the extra bolivars, Elena can afford to go to black market street vendors for cooking oil, flour, nail varnish, and other products that are out of stock in shops.