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Venezuelan Salespeople Pack Streets

December 21, 2000

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Katiuska Dominguez earns her living hawking underwear on a crowded, dirty Caracas street. Her mother keeps nagging her to find a regular job, but Dominguez isn’t giving up her spot on the street, especially during the busy Christmas season.

Dominguez, 24, a high school dropout and mother of two, says working in the informal economy pays more than any minimum wage job she could get. She’s been working on the street five years and averages $1,000 a month, more during Christmas.

In Venezuela’s huge underground economy, she is hardly unusual. All around Katiuska’s stand on a recent day, thousands of vendors occupied a Spanish colonial plaza, selling everything from Christmas tree lights to vegetables, compact discs to powerful fireworks, lipstick to laptop computers.

``I like my job and I’m not leaving it,″ she says. ``Last December I made $5,000. That’s why there are so many street vendors. It’s the easiest job there is.″

Even her mother sees the economic advantage.

``She makes more than me,″ admits 59-year-old Elba Dominguez, who earns $200 a month, Venezuela’s minimum wage, as a receptionist in the Education Ministry.

In unemployment-ridden Venezuela, at least half the 9 million workers make their living on the streets, and for many, the holiday season is the best time. Retail activity, slow most of the year because of the struggling economy, takes off in December as the South American nation’s largely Catholic population eagerly prepares for Christmas.

Downtown Caracas _ usually crammed with street vendors _ overflows at Christmas with merchants who fight over sidewalk space and often spill onto the roads, choking the capital city’s already congested traffic.

Darwin Pernia, a 25-year-old father of three, turned to selling Christmas lights on the street after a broken leg forced him to take unpaid sick leave from his job at a hardware store, where he made $260 a month.

For three months, he’s been making three times what he earned at the hardware store. He will return to his job after Christmas, but only because police have told him he must clear out of Caracas’ historic district after Jan. 31.

Caracas’ chaotic holiday phenomenon is costly for populist President Hugo Chavez’s government: It loses some $3 billion a year in uncollected income taxes to the underground economy. But the leftist Chavez, who inherited an economy in recession and whose popularity among Venezuela’s poor majority has produced two election victories since 1998, says the vendors won’t be evicted until they find other sources of income.

Many Venezuelans are driven into the informal economy after losing their jobs or failing to find one. By government estimates, 600,000 people lost their jobs last year, when Venezuela’s economy shrank by more than 7 percent. Officially, unemployment is 13 percent. Business groups and economists say it’s 20 percent.

The burgeoning armies of street vendors in Caracas have forced authorities to be lenient during the holidays, allowing merchants to sell their wares on streets normally open to traffic.

Angry vendors recently tossed firecrackers at riot police who tried to eliminate a new colony of vendors in front of Venezuela’s ornate Congress building. The merchants eventually backed off.

Tax- and rent-paying business owners, meanwhile, feel wronged by the street vendors and their untaxed earnings. They seethe as Venezuela’s informal economy swells.

This is the first year police allowed street vendors to set up shop in front of the shoe store where Elvia Hernandez, 25, works on Avenida La Torre, formerly a quaint colonial street. Hernandez says she’s lost critical holiday-season sales because shoppers refuse to struggle through the maze of makeshift stands to get to her store.

``This time last year, we were selling so much we didn’t even have time to have lunch. It was always full. But this year ... well, look,″ she said, pointing to the nearly deserted store.

The store’s owner teamed up with five other retailers and the keepers of a neighboring colonial cathedral to lodge a complaint with the city. Officials replied that the vendors will be allowed to stay until after Christmas.

``I think it’s the influence of the president’s rhetoric,″ Hernandez said.

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