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Venezuela’s currency is so worthless that even some thieves won’t steal it

Venezuelan bolívars being exchanged for dollars.
Venezuelan bolívars being exchanged for dollars.
(Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

How bad is inflation in Venezuela? So bad, according to a Monday story by the New York Times's William Neuman and Patricia Torres, that some thieves are declining to steal Venezuelan currency because it's so worthless.

The Venezuelan economy is a disaster, owing to the country's byzantine currency pricing system as well as falling oil prices (the oil sector makes up 25 percent of Venezuela's GDP and is the linchpin of its economy). According to International Monetary Fund projections, GDP is likely to shrink by 10 percent in 2015, the most severe contraction anywhere on the planet; inflation is at 157 percent. Basic goods are nearly impossible to find.

As a result, Venezuela's currency, the bolívar, is now next to worthless: Everyone wants US dollars, which actually command real purchasing power on the black market. Which is why the thieves in Neuman and Torres's story decided that nabbing bolívars simply wasn't worth it:

When robbers carjacked Pedro Venero, an engineer, earlier this year, he expected they would drive him to his bank to cash his check for a hefty sum in bolívars — the sort of thing that crime-weary Venezuelans have long since gotten used to. But the robbers, armed with rifles and a grenade, and sure that he would have a stash of dollars at home, wanted nothing to do with the bolívars in his bank account.

"They told me straight up, ‘Don’t worry about that,’ " Mr. Venero said. "Forget about it."

Violent crime rates have skyrocketed in Venezuela, owing to a combination of the country's economic crisis and its incompetent police and prosecutors. A recent survey reported by the Economist found that "less than a fifth of Venezuelans feel safe walking outside at night."

These economic and social problems amount to "the most severe crisis in Latin America’s recent past," Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, writes in Foreign Affairs. And amid this mess, Venezuela is gearing up for a national election in December — which could layer political controversy on top of the country's many, many existing woes.

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