CARACAS— There’s no point in hanging the stockings by the chimney with care. Venezuela, sadly, has become a flyover country for Santa Claus.
Amid scarcity and a grinding economic crisis, many Venezuelan families have decided to call off Christmas celebrations altogether. It’s a grinchy ending to a disastrous year.
For Johanna, Flor and Luisa Marina Rodríguez, who live in the rough Caracas neighborhood of Petare, Christmas eve will be just like any other night of 2016. Instead of gathering around a Christmas ham, the seven of them will ration out whatever food they have left in the fridge.
There won’t be any Christmas presents to open after dinner. And nobody is expecting a Christmas miracle. Jonathan, 12, didn’t bother writing a letter to Santa this year. His youngest sister, Kelly, is having a slightly more difficult time understanding why Santa isn’t going to visit their house this year.
“I’ll have to tell her that Santa isn’t real, and that it was me all these years,” says her mother, Johanna, with a touch of sadness. “At least that way she’ll understand the situation.”
The Rodríguez family has already given up eating three meals a day. The family business— an auto body workshop — was robbed earlier this year. Now the family is bankrupt.
Johanna, 29, says her family spent “more time queuing to find food than at home” this year. She got pregnant this year and spent hours standing in line to find diapers and infant formula for the baby boy she was expecting.
It wasn’t always like this, not even under Venezuela’s socialist regime.
“Last year we were able to buy presents and new clothes for the children,” said Luisa Marina, Johanna’s mother-in-law. But this year they didn’t even have enough money for a tree.
Thanks to an exchange-control system imposed by former President Hugo Chávez in 2003, many people had access to goods and services that they could not have afforded in an open economy. So for several years under Chávez, Venezuela’s middle class could afford some luxuries.
But after oil prices crashed in 2014, the government ran out of funds to subsidize imports. Price controls, along with the nationalization of hundreds of companies had already crippled national production capabilities. The end result is massive scarcity in a country that hardly produces anything and can no longer afford to import products.
Even people who make what’s considered a “good wage” by Venezuelan standards are now facing a sad Christmas.
Viula Molina, 40, is a professional lawyer with a Masters degree yet still struggles to make ends meet. She’s been been surviving thanks to her savings in U.S. dollars, which she had for emergencies.
But that money must be spent with care. This year, there won´t be any funds for the Molina family to prepare hallacas, a traditional Christmas tamale.
“Every year we made a batch of 80 hallacas,” said Viula, who remembers the tradition as a big celebration full of joy, food and alcohol. “This year, we’re only buying one hallaca per person.”
Other families are foregoing presents. Before the crisis, college professor Josefina Contreras says her family gathered on Christmas eve around a tinseled tree skirted with presents.
“We used to buy presents for everybody,” she says. This year, the family resorted to Secret Santa. “This way we only have to buy one present each.”
Caracas is also looking gloomy. There’s a scarcity of Christmas twinkle and the Gaita folk bands, which normally fill the holiday season with cheer, are no longer playing at malls and shopping centers. Christmas decorations never made it out of the box in many malls this year, and some stores are closed. Those that remain open are struggling.
Miudis Pérez, a businesswoman who owns a clothing store in downtown Caracas, tells me she sold only one piece of clothing the whole week leading up to Christmas. It was a piece of womens’ pijamas. “Normally this time of the year you can barely walk around [because of the crowds], but now it looks like a ghost town,” she said.
Another merchant from Dorsay, a popular men’s apparel store, said his sales have dropped 50% compared to the last Christmas.
In a desperate attempt to correct the situation, the government has forced some stores to slash their prices, generating long lines of desperate shoppers eager to buy something cheap.
But that doesn’t fix the problem. The government is still generating inflation by printing loads of cash in an effort to pay for its debts.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Venezuela’s inflation is projected to skyrocket from 700% this year to 2,200% next year. And the economy is expected to contract another 10%.
“I became depressed as soon as December arrived,” said Flor Rodriguez, from Petare. She said she’s planning to go to bed early on Christmas eve — not in giddy expectation of Santa’s arrival, but because she knows he isn’t coming.