Venezuela citizens scramble to survive as merchants demand dollars

Bolivar notes a seen hanging in a tree at a street in Maracaibo, Venezuela November 11, 2017.

By Eyanir Chinea and Maria Ramirez

CARACAS/CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – There was no way Jose Ramon Garcia, a food transporter in Venezuela, could afford new tires for his van at $350 each.

Whether he opted to pay in U.S. currency or in the devalued local bolivar currency at the equivalent black market price, Garcia would have had to save up for years.

Though used to expensive repairs, this one was too much and put him out of business. “Repairs cost an arm and a leg in Venezuela,” said the now-unemployed 42-year-old Garcia, who has a wife and two children to support in the southern city of Guayana.

“There’s no point keeping bolivars.”

For a decade and a half, strict exchange controls have severely limited access to dollars. A black market in hard currency has spread in response, and as once-sky-high oil revenue runs dry, Venezuela’s economy is in free-fall.

The practice adopted by gourmet and design stores in Caracas over the last couple of years to charge in dollars to a select group of expatriates or Venezuelans with access to greenbacks is fast spreading.

Food sellers, dental and medical clinics, and others are starting to charge in dollars or their black market equivalent – putting many basic goods and services out of reach for a large number of Venezuelans.

According to the opposition-led National Assembly, November’s rise in prices topped academics’ traditional benchmark for hyperinflation of more than 50 percent a month – and could end the year at 2,000 percent. The government has not published inflation data for more than a year.

“I can’t think in bolivars anymore, because you have to give a different price every hour,” said Yoselin Aguirre, 27, who makes and sells jewelry in the Paraguana peninsula and has recently pegged prices to the dollar. “To survive, you have to dollarize.”

The socialist government of the late president Hugo Chavez in 2003 brought in the strict controls in order to curb capital flight, as the wealthy sought to move money out of Venezuela after a coup attempt and major oil strike the previous year.

Oil revenue was initially able to bolster artificial exchange rates, though the black market grew and now is becoming unmanageable for the government.


President Nicolas Maduro has maintained his predecessor’s policies on capital controls. Yet, the spread between the strongest official rate, of some 10 bolivars per dollar, and the black market rate, of around 110,000 per dollar, is now huge.

While sellers see a shift to hard currency as necessary, buyers sometimes blame them for speculating.

Rafael Vetencourt, 55, a steel worker in Ciudad Guayana, needed a prostate operation priced at $250.

“We don’t earn in dollars. It’s abusive to charge in dollars!” said Vetencourt, who had to decimate his savings to pay for the surgery.

In just one year, Venezuela’s currency has weakened 97.5 per cent against the greenback, meaning $1,000 of local currency purchased then would be worth just $25 now.

Maduro blames black market rate-publishing websites such as DolarToday for inflating the numbers, part of an “economic war” he says is designed by the opposition and Washington to topple him.

On Venezuela’s borders with Brazil and Colombia, the prices of imported oil, eggs and wheat flour vary daily in line with the black market price for bolivars.

In an upscale Caracas market, cheese-filled arepas, the traditional breakfast made with corn flour, increased 65 percent in price in just two weeks, according to tracking by Reuters reporters. In the same period, a kilogram of ham jumped a whopping 171 percent.

The runaway prices have dampened Christmas celebrations, which this season were characterized by shortages of pine trees and toys, as well as meat, chicken and cornmeal for the preparation of typical dishes.

In one grim festive joke, a Christmas tree in Maracaibo, the country’s oil capital and second city, was decorated with virtually worthless low-denomination bolivar bills.

Most Venezuelans, earning just $5 a month at the black market rate, are nowhere near being able to save hard currency.

“How do I do it? I earn in bolivars and have no way to buy foreign currency,” said Cristina Centeno, a 31-year-old teacher who, like many, was seeking remote work online before Christmas in order to bring in some hard currency.

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte and Leon Wietfeld in Caracas, Mircely Guanipa in Maracay, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Lenin Danieri in Maracaibo; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Leslie Adler)

San Juan mayor calls hurricane disaster ‘a people-are-dying’ story

Trump administration asks Congress for $29 billion in hurricane relief

By Robin Respaut and Dave Graham

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – The mayor of Puerto Rico’s hurricane-battered capital spoke on Friday of thirsty children drinking from creeks. A woman with diabetes said a lack of refrigeration had spoiled her insulin. An insurance adjuster said roads have virtually vanished on parts of the island.

In enumerable ways large and small, many of the 3.4 million inhabitants of Puerto Rico struggled through a 10th day with little or no access to basic necessities – from electricity and clean, running water to communications, food and medicine.

Carmen Yulin Cruz, mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, gave voice to rising anger on the U.S. island territory as she delivered a sharp retort on Friday to comments from a top Trump administration official who said the federal relief effort was a “a good news story.”

“Damn it, this is not a good news story,” Cruz told CNN. “This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story.”

Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, head of the parent department for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said on Thursday she was satisfied with the disaster response so far.

“I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane,” Duke said.

Paying a visit to Puerto Rico on Friday for an aerial tour of the island with Governor Ricardo Rossello, Duke moderated her message, telling reporters she was proud of the recovery work but adding that she and President Donald Trump would not be satisfied until the territory was fully functional.

Maria, the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, has killed at least 16 people on the island, according to the official death toll. More than 30 deaths have been attributed to the storm across the Caribbean.

Rossello has called the widespread heavy damage to Puerto Rico’s homes, roads and infrastructure unprecedented, though he has praised the U.S. government’s relief efforts.

Cruz, appearing in a later interview, bristled at suggestions that the relief effort had been well-coordinated.

“There is a disconnect between what the FEMA people are saying is happening and what the mayors and the people in the towns know that is happening,” Cruz, who has been living in a shelter since her own home was flooded, said on CNN.

Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “Help us. We are dying,” Cruz said she was hopeful the situation would improve, but added, “People can’t fathom what it is to have children drinking from creeks, to have people in nursing homes without oxygen.”


The mayor of San Germán, a town of about 35,000 in the southwestern corner of the island, echoed Cruz’s harsh words.

“The governor is giving a message that everything is resolved, and it is not true,” Mayor Isidro Negron Irizarry said in Spanish on Twitter. “There is no functional operations structure. We are alone.”

Trump, who was scheduled to visit next week, addressed the situation before a speech in Washington about his new tax plan.

“The electrical grid and other infrastructure were already in very, very poor shape,” he said. “And now virtually everything has been wiped out, and we will have to really start all over again. We’re literally starting from scratch.”

Colonel James DeLapp, the Army Corps of Engineers commander for Puerto Rico, told CNN that rebuilding the island’s crippled power grid was a massive undertaking.

“The closest thing we’ve had is when the Army Corps led the effort to restore Iraq’s electricity in the early stages of the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004,” he said.

Further complicating recovery is a financial crisis marked by Puerto Rico’s record bankruptcy filing in May and the weight of $72 billion in outstanding debt.

“Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort, which will end up being one of the biggest ever, will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” Trump said.


In Old San Juan, the capital’s historic colonial section, customers lined up on the sidewalk outside Casa Cortes ChocoBar cafe for sandwiches and coffee, being handed out from a small window between plywood planks clinging to the exterior wall.

“We’re one of the few restaurants that have a generator,” said Daniela Santini, 19, who works there. “Most businesses don’t have electricity, only some have water. We’re one of the lucky ones.”

Nancy Rivera, 59, a San Juan resident who suffers from diabetes, was forced to go without her medication by a lack of electricity. “I stopped using the insulin in my refrigerator. It’s too warm,” she said.

Ground transportation, hampered by fuel shortages and streets blocked with fallen vegetation and utility wires, remained a major challenge.

“You can’t see the roads,” said Alvaro Trueba, a regional catastrophe coordinator for property insurer Chubb Ltd, who told Reuters that adjusters face difficulties driving about the island.

More troops, medical supplies and vehicles were on the way to the island, but it will be some time before the U.S. territory is back on its feet, the senior U.S. general appointed to lead military relief operations said on Friday.

“We’re certainly bringing in more,” Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan told CNN on Friday, a day after he was appointed by the Pentagon.

The hardships on Puerto Rico have largely overshadowed similar struggles faced by the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, slammed by two major hurricanes – Irma and Maria – in the span of a month.

Most of St. Croix, the largest of the three major islands in that territory, remained without electricity and cellular communications nine days after Maria struck. Shelters were still packed and long lines stretched around emergency supply centers.

At one such facility, anguished residents pleaded for more than the single sheets of plastic tarp that National Guard troops were handing out.

Meanwhile, the insurance industry was tallying the mounting costs of Maria, with one modeling firm estimating that claims could total as much as $85 billion.

Rossello told CNN on Friday the federal government has responded to his requests and that he was in regular contact with FEMA’s director, though more needed to be done.

“We do have severe logistical limitations. It has been enhancing, but it’s still nowhere near where it needs to be,” Rossello said.

Asked how long it would take for Puerto Rico to recover, Buchanan, the general leading the military effort, gave a slight sigh and said: “This is a very, very long duration.”

(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Dave Graham in SAN JUAN, Doina Chiacu, Roberta Rampton, Justin Mitchell and Makini Brice in WASHINGTON, and Lisa Maria Garza in DALLAS and Suzanne Barlyn in NEW YORK; Writing by Bill Rigby and Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Mary Milliken)

Eating leaves to survive in Myanmar’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ zone

Eating leaves to survive in Myanmar's 'ethnic cleansing' zone

MAUNGDAW, Myanmar (Reuters) – Along the main road that stretches nearly 40 kilometers north from Maungdaw town in Myanmar’s violence-riven Rakhine State, all but one of the villages that were once home to tens of thousands of people have been turned into smouldering ash.

Hundreds of cows roam through deserted settlements and charred paddy fields. Hungry dogs eat small goats. The remains of local mosques, markets and schools – once bustling with Rohingya Muslims – are silent.

Despite strict controls on access to northern Rakhine, Reuters independently traveled to parts of the most-affected area in early September, the first detailed look by reporters inside the region where the United Nations says Myanmar’s security forces have carried out ethnic cleansing.

Nearly 500 people have been killed and 480,000 Rohingya have fled since Aug. 25, when attacks on 30 police posts and a military base by Muslim militants provoked a fierce army crackdown. The government has rejected allegations of arson, rape and arbitrary killings leveled against its security forces.

“We were scared that the army and the police would shoot us if they found us … so we ran away from the village,” said Suyaid Islam, 32, from Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, near the area visited by Reuters north of Maungdaw. He was speaking by phone from a refugee camp in Bangladesh after leaving his village soon after the attacks.

Residents of his village told Reuters it had been burned down by security forces in an earlier operation against Rohingya insurgents late last year. Those that did not flee have been surviving since in makeshift shacks, eating food distributed by aid agencies.

Satellite photos showed that tens of thousands of homes in northern Rakhine have been destroyed in 214 villages, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. The U.N. detected 20 sq km (8 sq miles) of destroyed structures.

The government said more than 6,800 houses have been set on fire. It blames the Rohingya villagers and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which staged the Aug. 25 attacks.

“The information we obtained on this side is that terrorists did the burnings,” said Zaw Htay, spokesman for national leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Reuters reporters have made two trips to northern Rakhine, visiting the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung, and driving from Maungdaw through the most affected area along the main road north to the town of Kyein Chaung. (For a graphic of the area, click:

The reporters talked briefly to residents but, because many were scared of being seen speaking to outsiders, most interviews were carried out by phone from outside the army operation area.


Little aid has made it to northern Rakhine since the U.N. had to suspend operations because of the fighting and after the government suggested its food was sustaining insurgents. Convoys organized by the Red Cross have twice been stopped and searched by hostile ethnic Rakhines in the state capital Sittwe.

In U Shey Kya, where last October Rohingya residents accused the Myanmar army of raping several women, a teacher who spoke to Reuters from the village by phone said only about 100 families out of 800 households have stayed behind.

Those who remain are playing a cat-and-mouse game with the soldiers, who come to the village in the morning prompting the residents to hide in the forest and return at night.

“We don’t even have food to eat for this evening. What can we do?” said the teacher. “We are close to the forest where we have leaves we can eat and find some water to survive.” He refused to give his name because he had been warned by the authorities not to talk to reporters.

The man said escaping through bush in monsoon rain with his elderly parents, six children and pregnant wife was not an option.

Zaw Htay said the government has prioritized humanitarian assistance to the area.

“If there are any locations where aid has not reached yet, people should let us know, we will try to reach them as soon as we can,” he said.

About 30,000 non-Muslim residents of northern Rakhine have also been displaced.

Before the latest exodus there were around 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, mostly living in Rakhine, where they are denied citizenship and are regarded as interlopers from Bangladesh by the Buddhist majority.


Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh and human rights organizations say ethnic Rakhine vigilantes have aided the military in driving out the Muslim population.

Kamal Hussein, 22, from Alel Than Kyaw, south of Maungdaw town said his village was destroyed in early September, after which he fled to Bangladesh, where he spoke to Reuters.

Hussein said Rakhine mobs “poured petrol on the houses. Then, they came out and the military fired a grenade launcher at a house to set it alight”.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay said some empty buildings in the area had been burned by ethnic Rakhines. “We told the regional government to take action on that,” he said.

The damage caused by the fires, Reuters interviews and satellite pictures show, is by far the largest in Maungdaw, where the bulk of insurgent attacks took place. Across the mostly coastal area, stretching more than 100 km (60 miles) through thick bush and monsoon-swollen streams, most villages have been burned.

Maungdaw town itself, until recently ethnically mixed with Rakhine Buddhists, Muslims and some Hindus, is now segregated, with the remaining Rohingya shuttered in their homes. Some 450 houses in Rohingya parts of the town were burned down in the first week after the attacks, HRW said citing satellite photographs.

“Those who stored food, sold it and raised money to flee to Bangladesh,” Mohammad Salem, 35, who used to sell cosmetics at the market, told Reuters by phone from the town.

In ethnically-mixed Rathedaung township, 16 out of 21 Rohingya villages have been burned, according to residents and humanitarian workers.

Of the remaining five, two villages in the south are now cut off from food and threatened by hostile Rakhine neighbors.

In many places people have no access to medicines, residents said.

Reuters talked to two Rakhine Buddhist officials who corroborated the scale of the damage.

Tin Tun Soe, a Rakhine administrator in Chein Khar Li, where a security post had come under attack, said the army response was rapid and all the Rohingya had been driven out. Nearly 1,600 houses were burned down a day after the attacks, he said, though he blamed the fires on the insurgents.

“They have so many people. If they are here, we’re afraid to live,” said Tin Tun Soe. “I am very happy that now all of them are gone.”

(Reporting by Wa Lone and Shoon Naing in Yangon; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis in Cox’s Bazar; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.S. survivalists stock up as disasters roil the planet

U.S. survivalists stock up as disasters roil the planet

By Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) – Two earthquakes, three monstrous hurricanes and the North Korean missile crisis have U.S. survivalists convinced that the end of the world is nigh. And they are clearing store shelves to stock bunkers in anticipation of Earth’s final chapter.

Sales of freeze-dried food, gas masks and other survival equipment have spiked in recent weeks as so-called “preppers” get ready to ride out any disaster, whether natural or man-made.

Inspiring their actions: images of people helpless against floodwater from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and island towns obliterated by their fury. People buried in rubble after earthquakes rattled Mexico. Footage of North Korea’s missiles blazing into the sky.

“It’s been a very busy six or seven weeks here – sales tripled practically overnight,” said Keith Bansemer, vice president for marketing for Idaho-based My Patriot Supply, an online store catering to preppper needs.

“It all started when North Korea shot the missile that was capable of reaching the U.S. Then the hurricanes and two Mexican earthquakes increased sales from California and Cascadia in the Northwest,” he said, referring to the corner of the country where many survivalists have settled because of its relative isolation.

David Yellin, a self-described prepper who lives in California’s San Diego County, said his main concern was the long-expected “big earthquake” along the West Coast.

The 31-year-old police officer has piled enough survival supplies in a closet of the apartment he shares with his fiance and their two dogs to allow them to hunker down for a month.

If disaster forces the couple to flee, each has a “bug-out bag” stuffed with three days of food, water, first aid and water purification supplies, fire-starting materials, a tent and sleeping bag, change of clothes and important documents.

At Ready To Go Survival, founder and chief executive Roman Zrazhevskiy said gas masks were quickly moving off the shelves and overall sales “are up like 700 percent over the last two months.”

A prepper himself, he said his greatest fear was a U.S. economic collapse as a result of the country’s unsustainable debt.

“Once people go hungry, they are going to get to the streets and look for food,” said Zrazhevskiy, 31, who grew up in New York City’s borough of Brooklyn and now lives in Texas.

Customers were snapping up $500 CBRN suits to withstand chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attack and $200 gas masks in sizes that fit children as young as 5.

“Gas masks? I’ve got tons of those,” said prepper Jerry McMullin, 62, a retired risk assessment analyst whose bunker-like home in Yellow Jacket, Colorado, was built to withstand nuclear attack, biological warfare and a range of natural cataclysms.

Although North Korea is one of his biggest concerns, McMullin is also worried about political instability in Washington leading to riots and mayhem in the cities, he said.

“I’m not a paranoid guy. I just want to be in a position that when it does go to Hell, I’m in a good location to get whatever I need,” said McMullin, who has his own water filtration system and burns his own trash in his solar-powered home.

In recent weeks, some doomsayers have expressed a belief that according to Biblical prophesy Saturday, September 23, would kick off seven years of catastrophic events that would lead to the end of the world as we know it.

David Meade, a Christian numerologist and author, has said that, based on the Book of Revelations, a constellation would appear over Jerusalem on Saturday that would start the seven years of mayhem.

But McMullin said his own respect for Bible prophesy assures him that disaster is not around the corner.

“As far as getting wiped out this weekend, I’m not too worried about that,” McMullin said.

“Maybe it’s a timeline marker and things are going to start getting really ramped up. We are not about to go through mass destruction and fatality. I think people are a little more stable – except for Kim,” he said, referring to North Korea’s President Kim Jong Un.

Preppers including Yellin and McMullin said images of people incapacitated by recent natural disasters left them feeling vindicated about the stockpiles they keep, which raise eyebrows among those who consider their planning extreme.

“I’m more of what I consider a common sense prepper,” Yellin said. “Because at the end of the day, we are responsible for our own safety.”

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty, Toni Reinhold)