Pension increase is not enough for Venezuelans to be able to afford basic groceries

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — When lunchtime arrives, Maybel Sequera and Juan González share a plate of pasta and beans at their home in a low-income neighborhood west of Venezuela’s capital. Her meager lunch was a gift from a charity as the couple can’t afford to support themselves.

Sequera, 72, and González, 74, worked for years as seamstresses and drivers to build their two homes and raise their four children. But now, after 50 years of marriage, they depend on donations for food, medicine and clothing.

The government raised their combined monthly pensions from about $4 to about $60 last month. But it would have to be multiplied by six for them to buy a shopping cart.

“Now that they’ve bumped us up to 130 (each), we’ll see how we get by with those 130 because it’s not enough either,” Sequera said, referring to the pension in bolívares, Venezuela’s official currency pensions are paid.

In Venezuela, the pension is the amount paid monthly to workers retiring after completing 750 weeks of social security contributions and having reached the age of 55 for women and 60 for men.

Since 1995 – years before Hugo Chávez introduced what he called socialism in the South American country – a pension has been equal to the monthly minimum wage. Employees contribute between 2% and 4% of their salary to Social Security, while employers pay an additional 9% to 11% on behalf of employees.

The pensions of Sequera, González and millions of other like-minded retirees rose last month because President Nicolás Maduro raised the monthly minimum wage from about $2 to about $30, an amount not enough to pay for basic goods whose cost in the February were valued at $365. according to the Venezuelan Financial Observatory, an organization specializing in economic studies.

According to official figures, Venezuela has a little more than five million pensioners. Annual inflation, which has slowed over the past year but still reached 686.4%, has eroded their pensions for years.

Although the country experienced severe shortages of food and hygiene items in the second half of the last decade, prompting people to queue in front of supermarkets to buy everything they could, the shelves of the shops are now good filled and show imported products. But high dollar prices make it impossible for a large part of the population to afford goods.

This dynamic leaves many older adults dependent on remittances from the more than six million Venezuelans who have migrated as a result of the economic, political and social crises of recent years.

Charities and churches fill some of the gaps, but it’s not uncommon to see elderly people on the sidewalks of the capital, Caracas, selling candy or begging for money.

“I have to manage to get food. It’s not easy because you’re of legal age, you’re out on the streets and a lot of people look at you with contempt,” Miriam Jiménez, 68, told The Associated Press after picking up a plate of food at a soup kitchen for the elderly in the West caracas “You have to beg on the street. Sometimes a neighbor gives me something.”

In other South American countries, pensions are between 230 and 650 US dollars, but the amounts are also usually below the cost of a shopping basket or the monthly minimum wage. In Chile, new President Gabriel Boric promised to raise the amount to $310, although he will remain below the $435 monthly minimum wage.

Luis Francisco Cabeza, director of Convite, an NGO focused on caring for the elderly in Venezuela, said social security for the elderly population shouldn’t just be a pension. He said it should also include access to medicines, medical care and recreation.

“Pension is a system designed to protect you against reaching old age,” he added. In Venezuela, the hospital system is precarious, requiring patients to bring all medical supplies with them for treatment.

Sequera was diagnosed with two types of cancer this year, including a type of skin cancer that required surgery on his face. To pay for medical care, she sold two of her three sewing machines, which she used to mend neighbors’ clothes for money.

Pensioners have protested dozens of times across the country over the past year. The protests in the capital saw some with broken shoes and worn-out clothes.

Sequera and González sipped a cup of coffee after finishing their plate of pasta and beans for lunch.

“Today (at breakfast) we ate the last little egg. We will wait for another blessing to come out,” González said.

“God will provide for the night,” interjected his wife. “And if not, a glass of water and go to sleep,” lamented González.

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