The forklift’s working overtime at Vikom Export, one of the hundreds of shipping companies nestled in the warehouse labyrinths of Doral, just west of Miami.
Almost all of Vikom’s shipments go to Venezuela – and they’ve doubled since last year.
“Food, baby formula, medicine, adult diapers” says Vikom owner and Venezuelan expat Elisaul Herrera as his phone rings off the hook in his office. “Every months it’s more, more cargo. Increases constantly.”
Vikom customers like Marianela Mendez can tell you why. Mendez is one of thousands of émigrés moving to South Florida to escape increasingly painful food and medicine shortages back in Venezuela.
“There is nothing in Venezuela, nothing,” says Mendez, who lives in Coral Gables and edits an expat website, MiamiDiario. “On many days my family there can’t even find bread to buy.”
Venezuela’s once oil-rich economy has collapsed under disastrous socialist rule. Shipments of bread from the country’s major trading partners, in fact, plummeted 94 percent in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year – from $3.5 million to $216,000, according to the trade analytics firm Panjiva.
Meat shipments dropped from $350 million to $127 million – and fruit imports were in free-fall, from $21 million to $159,000.
So just about every week Mendez sends hundreds of dollars’ worth of basic goods – rice, soap, Band-Aids – to relatives back in Caracas.
But there’s one thing she couldn’t find in time to send to Venezuela: The drugs her brother needed for a bone marrow transplant to fight his leukemia. He died in January.
“It’s madness,” says Mendez. “When someone gets sick there I’m frantic trying to find medicines here.”
It’s the sort of emergency shippers here are having to adjust to. Venezuela’s medical scarcities are so acute that South Florida pharmacies have begun accepting prescriptions from doctors in Venezuela – and shippers like Herrera will send those medicines free if they meet a weight limit.
“It’s hard,” Herrera says of his Venezuelan clients here, “because nowadays when somebody calls, generally they start to cry. You listen to people crying. It’s a drama.”
And sometimes it involves the shipper’s own desperation.
Venezuelan expat Miguel Lopez runs another Doral cargo firm. Like Herrera, he talks just about every day with customers trying to help loved ones in Venezuela battle illnesses – and malnutrition, which now afflicts a fifth of Venezuelan children.
WORLD'S HIGHEST INFLATION
But this year Lopez’s brother in Coro, Venezuela, told him his two kids weren’t getting enough to eat.
“Most days he and his wife don’t eat breakfast or dinner,” says Lopez, “so their children can eat three decent meals.”
His brother, José, is a middle-class engineer. But, José said by phone, that no longer matters since Venezuela also chafes under the world’s highest inflation.
“Two pounds of meat cost a third of the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela,” he said. “We rely on what my brother’s sending us now.”
Since José’s children are asthmatic, that includes inhalers, which are also scarce in Venezuela.
This is a strange new world for the shipping firms. In the old days, Venezuelans came to Miami, bought out our malls and shipped their purchases back home. Retailers here nicknamed them Dame dos, or “I’ll take two.”
“Everybody came here to buy furniture,” says Venezuelan expat Pedro Behrens, operations manager at the Doral cargo firm Letter Express. “Pallets from Rooms to Go, Ikea, every day.”
Shipping rice and inhalers is less profitable than shipping bedroom sets. So now, says Behrens, the work “is more than business. I mean, it’s humanitarian. Yeah, it is.”
But that brings its own problems. Venezuela’s government won’t admit the country needs humanitarian aid – especially help from what it calls its imperialista enemy to the north. As a result, it sometimes blocks shipments coming out of the U.S. – or corrupt officials sometimes confiscate them.
“If you go there with that flag, ‘Here comes Robin Hood,’ with a lot of humanitarian stuff, you're going to be in big trouble down there,” says Letter Express general manager Rafael Landa, standing beneath a mountainous stack of boxes filled with medical supplies.
Which is why so many unlicensed shippers are popping up in Doral today. They’re often run by expats who make sketchy promises that they know which Venezuelan customs officials can be paid off to let packages in.
“We see like 20 new companies a month here in Doral,” says Landa. “But most of those are not legal.”
WLRN contacted at least three of those unlicensed firms. But none would speak on the record.
This month Venezuela re-opened its border with Colombia, which the Venezuelan government had closed last summer. That should bring some relief. But since their currency is so weak, Venezuelans are finding products are too expensive over in Colombia, too.
And so the forklifts in Doral keep loading boxes.