The original version of this post was published in Spanish on the blog The Border Chronicles.
Santa Elena de Uairén is the capital of the land of the indigenous Pemon People in the municipality of Gran Sabana [The Great Savannah]. It is located on the Venezuelan border with Brazil and has recently emerged as a chaotic free port thronging with Brazilians who buy in bulk what little that can be found there.
In June 2015, at the time this article was written, the Brazilian Real went beyond the 100 bolivars threshold on the black market — a stark contrast to the exchange rate set by the Venezuelan government of 2.19 bolivars to 1 real — and has continued to appreciate ever since. Venezuela, whose main export is crude oil, is in the throes of a serious economic crisis.
In 2003, Venezuela implemented rigorous and complex currency regulations. Currently, it has four different exchange rates, three of which are regulated by the state, which provides a social rate for purchases of food and medical imports.
On the black market $1 US can fetch over 670 bolivars.
Luis Rio Bueno, a vet from Gran Sabana, recounts that at least 100 Venezuelan puppies cross the border monthly into Brazil, where they have a growing resale value.
In Maturin or Valencia, more than 1,000 km from Santa Elena, a Golden Retriever costs the equivalent of US$2, while in Brazil it costs 200 reales (US$60). In Boa Vista (220 kilometres away) and Manaus (865 kilometres), the two closest Brazilian cities, the price is at least double in each instance.
At the intersection of streets located in the heart of Casco Central in Santa Elena are the so-called ‘Four Corners’ where barterers can be found changing reales for bolivars or vice versa. Or selling dogs.
During the third week of May at the transport terminal in Brisas de Uairen — one of the four trading hotspots — two girls offer ‘a promotion’ for a litter of Rottweiler puppies.
On any other day, a dog of this breed sells for 700 reales (US$200), they say, but today one will go for 650 reales or even 600 reales flat.
At the end of May, in front of the Great Savannah Hotel (Hotel Gran Sabana), a girl named Río exhibits a Pug puppy, ash-grey in colour, for which she is asking 1,000 reales.
“This is the one from [the film] Men in Black; it’s one of the most expensive that we sell.”
Monthly, she finds buyers for 32 dogs, all of which she manages to buy in Valencia or other central cities, she recounts.
Three weeks later on a Friday in June, a couple from Maturin are displaying nine puppies in a cage on the ground at the same transport terminal in Brisas de Uairen where the two girls were offering up their Rottweilers.
They have not been there more than 10 minutes and at least six possible clients — all Brazilian — have stopped.
Within a cage approximately 1 metre by 60 centimeters, they are showing off five Poodles: three mini toys and two conventional, which they value at 200 reales each, as well as one Siberian Husky, two Rottweilers and one Schnauzer, all valued at 700 reales each.
One of the men from the first group of customers is concerned about the appearance of one of the two small Rottweilers.
‘Are they mixed?’ he asks.
The seller assures him that they are ‘purebred’.
The girl accompanying the customer loves the Siberian Husky.
‘Look! He’s so beautiful’ she says and takes him under her chin into her bosom.
Nonetheless her friend encourages her to continue looking and bids the sellers goodbye, assuring them: “We’ll be back in a little while.”
Luis Rio Bueno, the local vet says:
There is a problem: many of those selling dogs do not care about the condition in which they are selling them […] The majority of the dogs are arriving with falsified documents that have not been certified by a vet´ he explains, while showing a stack of vaccination cards with inconsistencies regarding the professional’s identification number as well as information related to the vaccine.
Bueno adds that the dogs should be vaccinated before they leave the country, at least with the six combined vaccinations (Parvovirus, Coronavirus, distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis and influenza) and of course they should be healthy with bright eyes and a healthy coat.
If not, “the day the authorities realise this is not the case, they will put a stop to the business.”
Furthermore, Bueno suggests that the animal’s breed be confirmed given that they are selling ‘mixed breed’ dogs, for example offspring of Cocker Spaniels and Poodles as if they were thoroughbred. Their teeth should also be checked.
“Go to the vet with the seller and check the dog, before paying for it,” he concludes.
The minimum wage in Brazil is 788 reales a month (U$230), the same as what you might pay for a Rottweiler in Santa Elena.
It is said that in Boa Vista a Rottweiler can cost around 1,500 reales. In Manaus, in the Amazon region, the price could go up even further.
The behaviour of the dog traders is a hot topic in Venezuela. So is the proliferation of thieves who, with little affection or food, coax dogs from their homes in Santa Elena in order to sell them on for precious reales.