Scenes from a socialist paradise: Using the ATM in Venezuela

CNN Money published a story today which describes what it’s like to get money—or try to—from an ATM in Venezuela. Given that the country is undergoing quadruple-digit inflation, you won’t be surprised to learn that banking has become extremely difficult. The amount each person is allowed to withdraw from the bank on a given day is set by the government but also by the bank branch depending on how much cash is available. Those amounts aren’t announced ahead of time, they just fluctuate daily. Meanwhile, the value of the currency itself is also dropping by the day meaning the amount you’re allowed to withdraw is worth less and less. In fact, taking the equivalent of $1 US out of the bank in cash is impossible.

So how hard is it to get a dollar’s worth of bolivars?

I tried. And failed…

I got to my first bank at 9:30 a.m. Dozens of people were lining up in front. People wait for cash here like Americans queue up to buy lottery tickets when the jackpot soars.

Inside, the five ATMs were deserted, a sign that they were out of cash. The only option was to withdraw money with the bank teller. I quickly counted 21 people in line and just one teller working.

“It’s minimum an hour waiting,” the last man in line told me as I approached.

I decided to try my luck elsewhere.

After waiting in line at a 2nd bank where the ATM’s were already out of cash, the writer finally gets to a teller who informs him he needs a checkbook to withdraw money. For some reason, he can’t use his ATM card. He has to walk home to get his checkbook and eventually returns to the first bank:

I waited another hour in line before reaching the teller with my checkbook in hand…

At 1:23 p.m., I finally presented my check and got the hard-earned cash: 10,000 bolivars, or 6 cents…

With my 10,000 bolivars in hand four hours later, I met a friend for a coffee. My cappuccino cost 35,000 bolivars.

Total time to get money was about four hours though it might have been half that if he’d had his checkbook on hand. Still, even if he’d only spent an hour, that’s all the money he can get from that branch for the day and it’s not enough to buy a cup of cappuccino. As the writer points out, many families are now surviving based on the government’s CLAP program which hands out bags of heavily subsidized food. But some reports suggest the distribution of that food is limited to socialist party members. If you oppose the government in Venezuela, you may not eat.

The current, unofficial exchange rate in Venezuela is 194,026 Bolivars to one US Dollar. So imagine having your ATM withdrawal limit set to a nickel per day and that’s about what Venezuelans are dealing with. Incredibly, there are still some true believers here in the U.S. CNN columnist John Blake wrote this Monday: