This story is from How Condoms Can Cost a Weeks Wages, an episode of Economics with Subtitles presented by Ayeisha Thomas-Smith and Steve Bugeja, and produced by Simon Maybin and Phoebe Keane.To listen to more episodes of Economics with Subtitles from BBC Radio 4, please click here. Adapted by Sarah Keating.

 

Mariana Zuniga, a journalist in Caracas, went shopping for condoms and quickly discovered they were in very short supply.

When she did eventually track some down – in a shop with only seven boxes left – one packet cost more than 1 million Venezuelan bolívar. Condoms have become an unaffordable luxury for most.

Prior to a desperate move from President Nicolás Maduro to hike the national minimum wage 3,500% earlier in August, people were earning just 3 million bolívar per month on the minimum wage.

“We're living through an economic crisis,” Zuniga explains, saying the financial disaster has “caused the shortages of many things, including condoms and other kinds of contraceptive.”

The crisis she refers to – the economy has shrunk by a third since 2013 – has hit the country very hard. Venezuelans have experienced hyperinflation, an economic event where prices skyrocket in a short period of time and the currency devalues so much that it is essentially worthless. In Venezuela, the price of various goods has doubled on average every 26 days.

Millions of people have left the country, crossing into neighbouring Colombia in search of food and work. Those who stayed behind have to endure shortages of basic goods and rolling power outages.

One of the drivers for extreme inflation is soaring demand – in Venezuela there are far more people trying to buy goods from shops than there are goods out on the shelves.

And this, says Zuniga, has even changed the way people are having sex. “In Venezuela, some people are using old-fashioned ways to avoid getting pregnant and when I said old-fashioned ways, it's like the withdrawal method or the rhythm method, which is tracking your menstrual history to predict when you'll ovulate.”

With this has come a rise in unplanned pregnancies, STDs and HIV, she adds.

Because contraceptive pills have become so expensive, there has been a spike in the number of women taking more permanent measures to ensure they don’t have any more children.

Zuniga spoke to a clinic in Caracas which sterilised 400 women in 2017: it reached that number by May this year. On so-called ‘sterilisation days’ run by local health programmes, the appointments for 40 free sterilisations per day have been snapped up, with waiting lists of up to 500 women. 

“Before, the women that were sterilised in Venezuela were more than 30 [years old] and with more than three children,” Zuniga says. “Now you can find women [aged] around 19, 20, 24 that are looking to be sterilised because they can't afford to have another [child], because they can't find pills on the market anymore and it’s just desperation, they are desperate.”

The Venezuelan government has come under fire for the shortages. Critics claim that its bad money management and over-reliance on oil has sent the economy into freefall. When the price of oil plummeted, Venezuela was short of cash and struggled to import goods. This scarcity meant prices went up… and up and up.

And as goods became more scarce, cash became more readily available: President Maduro ordered literally planeloads of Venezuelan currency to be brought into circulation to stimulate the economy and get people spending.

 

“If a government prints a lot of money and there’s lots of money sloshing around, then people can just drive prices up and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Rajiv Prabhakar, an economist with the Open University.

Because shopkeepers want more in exchange for their goods many have stopped accepting the local currency altogether. They'll only sell for US dollars, or barter for another product. And it's only through selling for these dollars that shopkeepers can get hold of the foreign currency they need to order in more condoms or other products. 

The banknotes themselves consequently become less valuable, and shopkeepers want more in exchange for goods which have retained their value. A loaf of bread, for instance, is still a loaf of bread regardless of how many bolívar s are stuffed in your purse. Of course, the cost of ingredients can also rise, which also drives up the price of goods.

The price of various goods has doubled on average every 26 days

Of course, Venezuela isn’t the first country to endure hyperinflation. Some of the worst cases were in Germany in 1923 after World War One and in Zimbabwe in the late 2000s. But the IMF predicts that the rate of inflation in Venezuela will hit 1,000,000% by the end of 2018.

President Maduro announced in August that Venezuela would have a new currency – the sovereign bolívar – which would see five zeros being cut off the original bolívar. This redenomination is part of a package of financial measures that aims to take control of the country’s economy.

But for many Venezuelans it’s too little too late, as people struggle to afford basic goods such as medicine and food, and hyperinflation has prompted many young women to make permanent changes to their bodies in the form of sterilisation.

For those Venezuelans, as one woman told Mariana Zuniga, “the baby factory” is closed.

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