GUARENAS, Venezuela — Five years ago, when Hugo Chávez was president and Venezuela was a much different place, Ana Margarita Rangel could still afford to go to the movies and the beach, or to buy the ingredients she needed to bake cakes.
Even three years ago, when the country’s economy was beginning a severe contraction,Rangel earned enough for an occasional treat such as soda or ice cream.
Now she spends everything she earns to fend off hunger. Her shoes are tattered and torn, but she cannot afford new ones. A tube of toothpaste costs half a week’s wages.
“I’ve always loved brushing my teeth before going to sleep. I mean, that’s the rule, right?” said Rangel, who lives in a hillside slum 25 miles west of Caracas, the capital, and works in a cosmetics factory down in the suburban city of Guarenas.
“Now I have to choose,” she said. “So I do it only in the mornings.”
Rangel earns minimum wage, as does 32 percent of Venezuela’s workforce, according to the most recent official numbers available, released in 2015. That used to mean something in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves and a socialist government, led by Chávez, that presented itself as a champion of Venezuelan workers.
But 700 percent annual inflation and chronic shortages of food and medicine have changed the meaning of Venezuela’s “minimum” in profoundly painful ways.
“I remember the times when, like they say around here, we were millionaires and we didn’t know it,” Rangel said.
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Venezuela’s intensifying economic and political crisis has brought thousands of anti-government protesters into the streets over the past three months, and at least 75 people have died in the unrest. A large number of Venezuelans are spending everything they earn to avoid starving.
The minimum wage is enough to buy just one-quarter of the food needed by a family of five in one month, according to calculations by the Center of Documentation and Analysis for Workers, an independent advocacy group.
On July 1, President Nicolás Maduro raised the monthly minimum wage for the third time this year, to about 250,000 “strong bolivars’ ” worth of cash and food stamps — a 20 percent increase.
With Venezuela’s currency rapidly losing value, the new minimum wage is enough for only about six pounds of milk powder or five cartons of eggs. At the country’s informal exchange rate, the raise brings the average worker’s income to roughly $33 per month. That is far below the minimum monthly wage in neighboring Colombia — about $250 — or even Haiti, where it is $135.
The government sets price caps on some basic food items, such as pasta, rice and flour. But those items can usually be obtained only by standing in lines for hours or by signing up to receive a subsidized monthly grocery box from the government with enough to feed a family of five for about a week.
Since 2014, the proportion of Venezuelan families in poverty has soared from 48 percent to 82 percent, according to a study published this year by the country’s leading universities. Fifty-two percent of families live in extreme poverty, according to the survey, and about 31 percent survive on two meals per day at most. Households that depend on breadwinners earning up to twice the minimum wage are in the latter group.
“With Chávez, we were doing much better,” said Romer Sarabia, 44, a security guard at a government health clinic in a town 35 miles south of Caracas. On payday, he said, he used to take his family out for soup. “And I would buy candy for the children.”
Every two weeks, Sarabia goes to an informal market near his home and buys about two pounds of sugar, a pound of milk powder and nine pounds of broken-grain rice that smells of bird food and is typically used as chicken feed. He seasons it with bones or scrap meat.
His three children and wife supplement that with whatever they are able to grow in the nearby fields — mostly plantains, yucca and mangoes — unless neighbors steal the crops.
“What’s going to happen with us if we continue like this for another year?” he said, looking at his wife, who nodded and smiled weakly.
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Rangel, the cosmetics-factory worker, considers herself lucky, because she pools her income with the earnings of her three sons. But even with four adults making minimum wage, the refrigerator is almost always empty.
The family has eliminated beef, chicken, salad and fruit from its diet. Instead, Rangel and her sons eat rice, beans, yucca, plantains, sardines and sometimes eggs. “We used to be able to have juice with our meals,” Rangel said. “I miss it so much.”
“And chocolate! We can’t even afford to buy a little cup of coffee on our way to work,” she said.
In Rangel’s neighborhood, it is not uncommon to find people like Rainer Figueroa, a 30-year-old with sleepy eyes who has lost a significant amount of weight. Figueroa has shed 24 pounds in the past six months, he said, because his minimum wage is only enough for him to eat small portions of food twice a day. The rest of the groceries are for his wife and three children.
Figueroa said he stopped playing soccer this year. “I can’t afford to burn calories or wear out my sneakers,” he said.
Just three years ago, the family would go to a nearby shopping mall for fast-food meals to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. There would be enough money to pay for bus rides to public parks on the weekends. “It didn’t use to be like this,” he said, with his 7-year-old son standing barefoot beside him.
Figueroa works at a diaper factory that has stopped producing diapers. With shortages of raw materials and imports falling, many Venezuelan plants are operating at half-capacity or less, a situation many economists blame on government mismanagement of prices and currency rates.
Since taking office in 2013 after Chávez’s death, Maduro has decreed 16 increases to the minimum wage. But the purchasing power afforded by the raises in pay is wiped out almost as soon as the ink dries on Maduro’s orders.
In the past three years, the country’s economy has contracted by 24.5 percent, including 11 percent in 2016, according to the independent data firm Ecoanalítica.
“Wage raises make it all worse, because if you don’t take productivity into account, you’ll just generate more inflation,” said Asdrúbal Oliveros, director of Ecoanalítica. “This year, people’s purchasing power is headed to go down by 40 percent.”
Every weekday, Rangel wakes at 4 a.m. to take two buses from the slum to the factory. When she comes home around 2 p.m., she doesn’t do much. “I don’t spend my afternoons cooking anymore, because I don’t have meat to season or vegetables to cut,” she said.
Gone are the days when her neighbors would get together for barbecues and dance parties.
She said she doesn’t even like meeting with her friends anymore. “We always end up talking about all those things we can’t get anymore,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears.
She turns on the television instead. “I love watching the Kardashians, because you see how people that have everything live,” she said. “And for a moment you forget what your life is like.”
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