There’s been somewhat of a frenzy since late November on Río de Janeiro Avenue, in the Baruta municipality of Caracas, over the arrival of natural pine trees imported from Canada.
The stores where these conifers, wreaths, and Christmas toys are sold have replaced other businesses that were forced to close down because of the economic crisis.
These pines are sold for at least $100, if they are natural, while artificial trees start at $120. Lights and other Christmas ornaments can cost up to $50. In the nearby high-end shopping district of Las Mercedes, prices at stores selling these products are similar.
The enthusiastic buyers are part of a minority in Venezuela: bureaucrats who accumulate their wealth from their positions with the Nicolás Maduro regime. For the rest of the population, a tree without ornaments costs 12.6 times the monthly minimum wage. Only a select segment of society can afford such a luxury.
“People like the smell of pines. It reminds them of Christmas,” explains Diego, a young man in charge of such sales.
His store sold eight pine trees during the weekend of November 23-24. There are still another 30 left. At this pace, he hopes to sell them all by mid-December.
Back in the day, the movement around these stores was significant and meant that Christmas was drawing near. Middle class professionals used to spend their year-end bonuses here. Now, according to lawmaker Ángel Alvarado, member of the Venezuelan National Assembly’s Permanent Commission on Finance and Economic Development, these buyers represent a privileged group, constituting a very small percent of the country’s population.
According to the International Monetary Fund cumulative inflation in Venezuela will exceed 200,000 percent by the end of 2019.
“Venezuela is much more than eastern Caracas [where Las Mercedes is located], and this is good to remember. The non-oil GDP [gross domestic product] economy fell by 78 percent. This means that the private sector is destroyed,” the lawmaker said.
Chacao’s municipal market can be found 1.8 miles north of Río de Janeiro Avenue. In one of the stands, a merchant offered a $10 kit to prepare hallacas (Venezuelan tamales) with the basic condiments (including raisins, olives, capers, and butter) for the traditional dish of December’s festivities. In addition, one would have to buy leaves for wrapping, as well as chunks of chicken, beef, and pork.
María Eugenia, a shopper, was checking the stands to compare prices. She said that in 2017 she could afford to hire two assistants to prepare up to 500 hallacas. The situation will be different this Christmas: two of her four children have left the country, and she only feels up to making a few hallacas that she will eat with family members who are still in Venezuela.
While María Eugenia was finishing her shopping, Ernestina wandered through the aisles of this popular shopping center, pushing a small cart. She wasn’t buying anything, because she had no money to spend.
“I’m selling everything that’s left in my house so that I can eat,” said the 75-year-old woman, adding that her only income comes from selling her own valuables.
When the holidays arrive, the situation of inequality Venezuelans face is even more evident.
According to Janeth Márquez, director of the nongovernmental organization Cáritas Venezuela, 2019 will end with more than 7 million people lacking basic needs. This not only means an inability to get medicine for chronic illnesses, but also food that meets the daily minimum caloric requirement.
Of these, 1.2 million are minors. For all these people, there will be no Christmas.