CARACAS (AFP) - Shortages of basic goods and long lines of consumers hoping to buy them have spawned a new profession in crisis-hit Venezuela: waiting in line to buy things for other people.
Ms Krisbell Villarroel, a 22-year-old single mother of two small children in Caracas, makes a living by queuing up to buy things she then sells to clients who pay her for the time she spends standing in line.
"Every day, I have to get up at two in the morning and call my friends to find out where things are for sale or what is for sale," Ms Villarroel told AFP. "That is how I spend my day. I get out of the first line at 10am and then perhaps go to another to see what they are selling," she explained. "In one store, I might get milk, sugar or coffee, but in another - flour, rice, diapers or shampoo."
Ms Villarroel said her customers are families who do not have the time or really the need to wait in line - business people who have their own lives and money to pay someone to do this kind of thing.
Several restaurant owners in the Venezuelan capital told AFP they have employees whose only job is to wait in line at supermarkets and stores to buy food to put on the menu.
Venezuela suffers from shortages of nearly a third of all basic goods, inflation that ballooned to 64 per cent in 2014 and a recession triggered in part by a scarcity of hard currency that limits imports of essential goods.
The government of President Nicolas Maduro says the country is at "economic war", triggered by the opposition and by business people bent on destabilizing his administration.
But many economists say the model Mr Maduro inherited from his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, of currency and price controls has been a failure and accentuated the country's dependency on oil as a main source of revenue.
In recent days, as long, slow moving lines formed at stores and some fights broke out, the government has ordered security forces to watch over state-owned and private supermarkets.
Some pro-government state governments have even banned people from lining up at night outside stores.
For Venezuela, which gets 96 per cent of its foreign currency from oil, 2015 is shaping up as a tough year, given the sharp fall in oil prices.
This could make shortages and rationing at stores even worse in the coming months.
Each day, Ms Villarroel makes between 600 and 1,200 bolivars (S$4.80 and S$9.50 at the black market exchange rate) per shopping assignment.
She earns at least 13,200 bolivars a month by reselling items to her customers. That is more than some university professors make.
But it is hard to juggle this kind of work with raising small children, whom she sometimes has to take with her to the stores.
"No one lets me cut in front of them. I have to be there and it's hard because the kids are restless and get tired," she says.
So at times she negotiates with informal vendors who make a point of always being first in line. She pays them for their spot and sells them part of her loot because, as she says, "everything has a price".
And waiting in line at night is risky in a crime-ridden nation with the second highest murder rate in the world, at 58 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the World Health Organization.
Ms Villarroel insists she is not breaking the law.
"If this problem of the lines is resolved I would have to find another job in order to look after my daughters. I am raising them alone, and that is why I do it. There are many women like me," she says.
She says the blame lies at home.
"If I want 10 packages of cornmeal, why can I only have four? It should not be that way," she said, referring to rationing imposed by stores.