Getting Foreign Currency in Venezuela: An Endless Nightmare

EspañolAfter new regulations enacted two weeks ago, Venezuelans looking to withdraw foreign currency for overseas travel must hold a credit card issued by a state-run bank. Those who do don’t will have to migrate to the state banking system, which is taking up to two months to issue them.

On April 10, The National Center for Foreign Trade (Cencoex) published in the Official Gazette the new regulations, which join restrictions in force since 2003 on the amount of foreign cash that Venezuelans can buy.

Only credit card holders with state run banks are allowed to withdraw foreign currency, despite 71 percent of cards being with private banks.
Only credit card holders with state run banks are allowed to withdraw foreign currency, despite 71 percent of cards being with private banks. (Analitica)

Only four banks have been authorized to process foreign currency operations: the Bank of Venezuela, Treasury Bank, Bicentennial Bank, and the Industrial Bank of Venezuela. These financial institution are allowed to grant up to US$2,500 per year, depending on the destination and the length of the trip.

While private banks have issued 71 percent of the credit cards currently in use in the country, Cencoex told the Bank of Venezuela in an internal memo that roughly 102,000 Venezuelans who are planning to travel abroad in the next weeks haven’t been authorized to get foreign currency and don’t own a state-bank issued credit card.

Applying for a credit card in Venezuela before the new regulations came into force was already a tiresome and snail-paced process, but the current situation is “almost impossible,” bank customers told the PanAm Post. 

Loan Me Some Patience

Like many of my fellow Venezuelans, I’m also planning a trip in the near future. Since the Cencoex announcement, I’ve spent most of my time lining up in bank branches in search of the cash I need to go on my trip.

Before heading to a bank to apply for a credit card, you must assess which is the most suitable. For instance, in order to get one from the Bank of Venezuela an appointment is needed, and there is a backlog of four months. Where I live, in Barquisimeto (500 kilometers southwest of Caracas), the Industrial Bank doesn’t have a branch, while the Bicentennial Bank has run out of plastic to print the cards.

So, in my case, the most suitable bank is the Treasury Bank. But that decision is just the beginning. Among the requirements to apply for a credit card, the bank requests the statements for the last three months of your account. Despite them being available online, banks demands that the statements be signed and stamped by the relevant private bank: something which, in my case, resulted in a three-hour queue for a signature.

On Friday, April 17, I left my home at 6:00 a.m. in order to open an account an apply for a credit card with the Treasury Bank. Only 20 minutes later I arrived at the bank to find 86 people before me in line.

A few minutes before the bank opened its doors, employees started checking that everyone in the line fulfilled the requirements. Employees told potential customers that even if they opened up a checking or savings account, they would not be receiving a debit card; they haven’t got the plastic to make them.

Fortunately, however, they told me that they were allocating the remaining plastic for credit cards.

Once I was cleared by the bank employee, they announced that only the first 40 people in line up would be able to open an account. Holding the number 87, I realized I wouldn’t have the chance. However, we were told that we could apply for a credit card without owning an account. A new line was formed.

The bank finally opened its doors at 8:30 a.m., and after waiting for two and a half hour, I was finally greeted by a clerk. I filled out the forms, and he told me that I would have to wait another two months to know if my application was approved.

Later that day, an email from the Bank of Venezuela appeared in my inbox, telling me that a credit and a debit card have been authorized. According to the message, a sales representative would contact me in the following days.

This same email was sent to everyone who started the process to request foreign currency at a private institution. Most of us are still waiting.

Opinions in Line

Virigina Montoya arrived before me at the bank. She’d been queuing up since 3:20 a.m., hoping to open an account and apply for a credit card. It was the third consecutive day that she was there. She’d overlooked the great risk involved in being alone in the street before dawn, as she was set to go abroad in the next few weeks and needed the money.

Venezuelans have gotten use to lining up for everything, says Mariano Díaz (the 10th person in the line). “You have to arrive at 5:00 a.m. and mentally prepare yourself, there’s no other way,” she explained stoically.

Carolina Martínez also wants her state-issued credit card so she can go visit her son living in Spain. The new regulations, she says, are destroying the private banking sector.

A young woman named Andreína Arráiz explains that she’s bought tickets to travel to Aruba next June, but as Venezuela’s economic situation worsens she’s been weighing up changing her tickets for Panama, and starting a new life there.

There’s Another Way

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and many employees of state-run banks have seen in the new regulations a chance to earn a quick buck.

Since the publication of the new restrictions, a black market in credit cards known as bachaqueo has opened up. For roughly 25,000 Bs. (US$90) you can get the all-important square of plastic from the Bank of Venezuela in just 15 days, and for 15,000 Bs. (US$55) one from the Treasury Bank.

Perhaps a small price, for those who lucky enough to afford it, for their remaining sanity.

Translated by Adam Dubove. Edited by Laurie Blair.

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