GLOBAL ECONOMY

Venezuelans give social media a new purpose amid critical scarcity: product swapping

Last month, the scarcity of products in Caracas Supermarkets reached 82.3 percent, according to local polling firm Datanalisis, meaning that shoppers found only 2 out of 10 products they were looking for.

This acute crisis has brought about a new and unique use for social networks in the South American country: product swapping.

If you are in Venezuela and you type the word “trueque” (Spanish for swap) on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram’s search bars, dozens of users or groups specially created for this purpose will pop up.

You will see Venezuelans’ despair in real time — thousands of men and women searching for products as basic as rice, flour, coffee, diapers, aspirin, birth control pills, flour, deodorant, shampoo, soap and a wide range of medicines. 

A lot of these are simply unavailable in supermarkets and, if they are, they eat up several hours of the people’s schedule.

Diana Antunez told Fox News Latino she has been forced to swap products online to get diapers and milk for her 3-year-old son.

“I usually exchange things with family members, neighbors or coworkers, but some time ago none of them had diapers and I had to visit @Truequejusto,” Antunez, 28, said.

More than 11,300 people currently follow that handle, created a year ago.

Users just have to mention it with the product they are looking for and how much they are willing to pay, @Truequejusto retweets it, and people get in contact if they are interest.

When we peeked into the account earlier this week, user Gabo Usek was swapping tooth paste for deodorant and Millaray Vásquez wanted either soap or deodorant for shavers, tooth paste or sanitary towels.

“I swapped a bottle of milk for diapers,” Antunez explained FNL. “I was afraid because I didn’t know the person, so we decided to meet in a public square and I asked a friend to go with me”.

And she had good reason to have been scared. With the high levels of crime in Venezuela, negotiating with strangers definitely implicates a risk and stops many from using these accounts.

“I haven’t done it again because I prefer to swap things with the people I know,” Antunez added.

Another Twitter account created with products swapping in mind is @Cambioproductos, which was created in February 2016. It was gathering good steam, with nearly 5,000 followers in less than four months, until the owner of the account was forced to close it down – at least temporarily.

“We regret to inform that this account will be temporarily inactive because my cell phone was stolen and I used to be the one who retweet your mentions (…) Soon it will be reactivated,” he tweeted that day.

Some have created WhatsApp groups with neighbors and friends devoted exclusively to the products exchange.

On Facebook, the group “Trueque anti-bachaqueros Caracas” has signed up 22,426 members so far. In this case, as a security measure one of the administrators has to vet and approve new users.

The rules are simple: 1) No sales allowed; 2) the products swapped have to be equivalent in price; and 3) people must post an image of the product they have and of the one they want in exchange.

Other more targeted groups have also started to become popular across Caracas. For instance, one was specially created matching people who has unused medicine at home with others that need them. It’s called “No dejes vencer las medicinas, dónalas (Don’t let medicines expire, donate them) and currently has 5,361 members.

Meanwhile, the Instagram account @Truequeshopve has as many as 35,000 followers. They publish information of the people who want to make trades and pictures of their products. Then people get in contact and meet in public places, sometimes subway stations.

On June 13th, user @GladysSeara used the account to swap three boxes of birth control pills for the same product but from a different brand. As of this writing a day later, she was still waiting to close a deal.

Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

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