Want Groceries in Venezuela? First Stop at Six ATMs

  • Biggest bolivar note worth two U.S. cents on the black market
  • So desperate for cash, people queue in hope at empty machines

Why Venezuela's Many Crises Keep Getting Worse

Domingris Montano did the calculations as she stood in the rain at the midpoint of a queue outside a bank in Caracas. She needed to buy groceries. A package of rice would cost 3,500 bolivars, more than half the daily withdrawal limit, and the automated teller machine might be empty by the time her turn came. Maybe she could hit a few more before dark?

QuickTake Venezuela’s Revolution

“I’ve had to go to six different ATMs just to get 6,000 bolivars,” said Montano, a 36-year-old hair stylist, poking her head out from under her umbrella to see if the people ahead of her at the Banesco Banco Universal CA branch were moving forward. They weren’t.

People line up to withdraw cash from an ATM in Caracas on Nov. 29.

Photographer: Wilfredo Riera/Bloomberg

Lines are nothing new in Venezuela, where the economy is shattered, inflation is soaring and the currency fell a staggering 67 percent against the U.S. dollar on the black market last month alone -- making 6,000 bolivars worth just $1.30. Now added to the indignities of daily life in a country desperately short on most everything except crime is the ATM hustle, as banks crack down on what customers can take out, setting measly maximums.

Resourceful residents employ a variety of tactics, including the multiple debit-card ploy: If you somehow wrangle more than one, you can go to town at the dispenser, to the horror of those behind you. Banks have set it up so people have to retrieve their money in as many as seven transactions -- maybe the hope is they’ll get tired and give up -- and everyone who can see what’s going on at the window counts. At seven, there’s a sigh of relief that deliverance is a step closer. If a second card appears and the whole process starts over, there’s swearing under the breath and praying the guy doesn’t pull out a third.

Hours For $6

A few blocks from Montano’s post, at a Banco Del Caribe, the wait for the machine that wasn’t broken was about 15 minutes. Not bad considering this branch allows 24,500 daily, a sum that will cover, say, a simple lunch for a family of four. It takes almost six minutes for it to spit out, 3,500 bolivars at a shot, and the victor walks away with a 3-inch stack worth $5.32.

A backpack filled with bolivar notes withdrawn from a bank.

Photographer: Wilfredo Riera/Bloomberg

That’s the dollar equivalent on the black market -- the market that matters, in the experience of most. The government has two legal exchange rates, but never mind that. At the illegal rate, the biggest note of 100 bolivars will fetch a little over two U.S. cents. A 2-bolivar bill is essentially worthless.

The paper-money chase is necessary because the poor and many laborers don’t have bank accounts, and it’s cash-only for most taxis and vendors peddling such rarities as eggs or corn flour or coffee. Anyway, credit cards are hit and miss; while some markets accept them, for example, transactions don’t always go through. So the ATM rules. Even when a machine is empty people still line up, on the lookout for armored trucks bearing restocking supplies.

It can take hours to acquire the equivalent of $6, which is about one-third of the monthly minimum wage that very many earn. For Ramon Tovar, a 22-year-old chef, the number of minutes spent cooling his heels has recently been between 45 and 90. “Sometimes I go to five ATMs without getting anything at all,” he said, because the devices are busted or bare.

Read More: How Venezuela got here -- a QuickTake on the crisis

When he’s desperate, he heads to a market where a vendor will swipe his debit card and give him cash -- for a 25 percent service fee.

There are few alternatives. Some banks don’t restrict amounts in interactions with live tellers, but there’s a rub at the counter. “The last time I cashed a check, it was for 44,000 bolivars and they gave it to me in bills of 5 and 10,” said Elyn Hernandez, a 27-year-old assistant chef. That many bolivars in notes of 10 would fill a Duffel bag. An ATM delivers in larger denominations.

It’s exhausting, searching out cash-obtaining opportunities so you can go out with confidence you’ll be able to buy a roll of toilet paper. But ATM-waiters seem remarkably patient, not yelling or throwing things. Though they’re frustrated, they’re resigned.

“Now this jumping from one bank to another to withdraw cash is normal,’’ said Candido Diaz, a 58-year-old messenger standing in a 12-person queue as the rain picked up and the ATM ran dry. He shook his head. “But it is not normal. I bless myself and go on. What else can you do?”

— With assistance by Daniel Cancel

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