Scarce Tampons Eat Up a Third of Venezuelan Salaries

"Fair" prices are out of reach for most Venezuelans. (Flickr)
“Fair” prices are out of reach for most Venezuelans. (Flickr)

Español Last month, both Venezuelan men and women were shocked to find out the new prices of tampons, sanitary pads, and other personal hygiene products set by the national government.

Overnight, sanitary pads went from costing Bs. 70 (US$0.15 at the black-market rate) to Bs. 1,290 ($3, a 1,800 percent increase). To foreigners it may seem not much, but Venezuela’s current minimum wage of Bs. 7,421 amounts to barely $20. Considering an average woman needs two packs, this means a her period can consume one third of her salary.

Following public outcry in social media, two days later the government ordered the already scarce products taken off the shelves.

“Boss, I can’t go to work today, I’m in my period and I don’t have any sanitary pads.” #Venezuela these days.

However, the Maduro administration didn’t act fast enough to prevent officials from screwing up. Miguel Pérez Abad, president of the Venezuelan Federation of Small & Medium Sized Industries (Fedeindustria) and government commissioner in the industry sector, said “these [new] prices are fair because when we had a good oil revenue much of what we bought was subsidized. Now that the scenario has changed, we’re facing this reality […].”

So for Pérez Abad, the problem is not the ridiculous government economic policies that basically amount to money-printing ourselves into hyperinflation. Neither is the widespread corruption and funneling of public funds (the International Monetary Funds estimates there are less than transparent US$350 billion in Venezuelan capital abroad).

For this man, everything is due to sinking international oil prices and the fact that products can no longer be subsidized. “You enjoyed before, now put up with it,” he seems to say, blaming like Chavistas do the innocent citizens.

As you can imagine, Pérez Abad’s remarks further incensed the public. Even in Aporrea, a socialist online outlet increasingly critical of Nicolás Maduro’s policies, José Vivas Santana wondered: how can an economy claim it’s oriented by social justice when a pack of sanitary pads can cost 20 percent of the minimum wage? How does a family with two, three or more teenage daughters make do? Will such a household have to spend up to a whole salary just in tampons?

A single pack of sanitary pads which contains between eight and 10 units is not enough for the average woman. They need two. And of course the début and retreat fanfare of the unpurchasable tampons sent ripples across the black market: Venezuelan websites began auctioning sanitary pads and informal street vendors now include them among their daily offers of scarce goods.

The Venezuelan government’s euphemistic strategy to cope with high prices is to add “fair” right next to the price tag. So the “fair” price of a kilogram of meat and cheese is now 20 percent of the minimum wage, and a single imported apple can cost Bs. 1,000.

In order to buy a jar of Nutella, a Venezuelan must be willing to forgo an entire month’s salary —we can agree it’s not a basic product, but we should be able to do more than merely survive.

Venezuela’s rampant inflation is hard to quantify because there are no official measures. It has been a whole semester since the Venezuelan Central Bank, on the orders of Maduro and ignoring the Constitution, published the last price index variation.

Nevertheless, the economic phenomenon is there and citizens feel it. Private analyst such as the Center for Documentation and Social Analysis for Workers (Cendas) estimate the monthly inflation rate at 10 percent.

In the meanwhile, the subservient press celebrates the recent 20 percent hike of the minimum wage as a “social justice” victory. Day and night the government propaganda systematically hammers the purported miseries of “savage neoliberalism,” without realizing that people have already figured out that compared with this version of socialism, neoliberalism would be paradise.

Why hasn’t Venezuela exploded yet? It’s hard to explain. There could be many factors at play: the hope that this year’s legislative elections may change the political landscape; fear, as there are around 80 political prisoners, armed gangs attacking opponents roam free, police arrest people for tweeting; a population discouraged by scarcity and rampant violence, or making plans to leave the country as soon as possible.

The truth of the matter is that around 70 percent of medicines are affected by shortages, basic foodstuffs are nowhere to be found or one must wait in endless lines to get them at exorbitant prices. And yet, Venezuelan economist Luis Oliveros warns, “we haven’t seen the worst yet.”

Maduro’s failure to act while Venezuela sinks into the abyss makes everything harder: he makes decisions only to withdraw them because they’re unpopular, and he doesn’t have the necessary leadership to try something different. These are not words from an opposition leader, but Jorge Giordani‘s, former Finance and Planning Minister to Hugo Chávez for 13 years (who arguably lacks the moral authority to pontificate.)

The best scenario for Venezuela now is political change after elections and a recovery of institutions; the worst, starvation and chaos. It’s up to us Venezuelans and our friends abroad to stir the country to one or the other path, hopefully one that doesn’t leave household budgets bleeding for a pack of tampons.

Translated by Daniel Duarte.

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