"All we have left is a single box with three condoms," said Ernesto D.
A 28-year-old Venezuelan who maintains a relationship with a woman living in another city, Ernesto tries to have sex with his girlfriend whenever they manage to see each other. But Ernesto also doesn't want to become a father anytime soon, especially in a country where basic child-rearing goods like diapers are often hard to find.
So Ernesto — who like others interviewed for this story preferred to remain anonymous — goes from pharmacy to pharmacy, city to city, looking for a simple latex product that is becoming increasingly harder to find in this troubled South American nation.
The shortage of condoms in Venezuela has transformed his sex life.
'I'm excessively careful every time I put one on. I don't want to break the few I have left.'
"We will have to adapt to using one a day, and limit the affection," Ernesto told VICE News in a recent interview. "In Maracaibo, Margarita, and Merida, everything is out of stock."
While scouring the shelves of nine pharmacies in two of those cities, he managed to find three boxes, for a total of nine condoms. Those, obviously, won't last long.
"I'm excessively careful every time I put one on," Ernesto said. "I don't want to break the few I have left."
The quest for condoms — as well as other basic necessities, like sanitary towels, soap, and toilet paper — has ramped up tensions in recent months for the citizens of Venezuela, a country facing critical shortages of goods due to skyrocketing inflation rates and a shortage of US dollars in circulation. On Tuesday, a 14-year-old was killed by a police officer shooting rubber bullets during a demonstration in the city of San Cristobal, reports said.
Private companies claim the government has not approved the necessary allocation of US currency in order to adequately import foreign merchandise. According to a trade union in the northwestern state of Zulia, for example, an estimated 95 percent of businesses that requested foreign currency for commercial purposes were unable to get clearance for the cash.
Venezuela has maintained strict currency controls for more than a decade. In order to import goods, travel, or shop online, citizens must first ask the government to exchange bolivars for dollars or euros, sparking a black market for the foreign currencies. The government replied last week by normalizing the unofficial dollar exchange rate into a separate currency tier for the country, almost matching the black-market rate.
But in order to purchase items related to the food and health sector — like condoms — the official exchange rate will be used, meaning buying condoms won't be much cheaper or easier than before.
Unable to find condoms, Juan said with resignation, he and his partner recently settled for kissing, hugging, and then 'finished the session in manual mode.'
In the view of the Chavista government under President Nicolás Maduro, the shortages are due to an "economic war" pursued by the political opposition and the upper classes. Maduro has lashed out, blaming the shortages of goods on the "vampires of the ultra-right," and "the parasites of the bourgeoisie, and their methods of economic warfare."
Authorities earlier this month arrested the owners of Venezuela's largest chain of pharmacies, Farmatodo, charging them with what they called supply "irregularities."
The opposition, meanwhile, claims that the shortages are caused by the government's actions. "The economic model doesn't work because it's not allowing Venezuelans to produce," opposition leader Julio Borges said in a televised interview in early February. "The government is waging a war against the private sector."
For Venezuelan citizens, this conflict of words amounts to an endless quest for basic goods. VICE News spoke to several Venezuelans in their 20s in recent days and weeks. A young man named Miguel G., who is single, said he is running low on condoms, but didn't seem too distressed about it.
"I have condoms, about eight or ten, just enough to get through a couple of enredadas" — or trysts, Miguel said. "As long as the girl is still taking contraceptives, I am not mortified by the idea that there aren't any condoms on the shelves."
I asked Miguel if he was worried that birth control pills would not be able to prevent any possible sexually transmitted infections.
"I suppose we all take that risk from time to time," he answered. "Especially if you don't have sex that often."
With condoms and contraceptive pills in short supply, Venezuelans risk further aggravating the already sobering statistics on teen pregnancy.
Juan A., a 24-year-old gay man, expressed greater concern over the crisis. He and his partner consider wearing condoms a vital element of their sexual relationship.
"If we don't have one, my partner knows that that day we won't be doing anything," Juan said.
He added that he has felt "almost castrated" during the shortage. Unable to find condoms, Juan said with resignation, he and his partner recently settled for kissing, hugging, and then "finished the session in manual mode."
On Feb. 20, Venezuela's public health service said it would be distributing 18 million condoms to Venezuelans this year, but it was not clear where, when or how the distribution process would take place.
"A massive distribution of condoms as part of a public, comprehensive health policy has never been regularized," said Fernando Reyna, president of an non-governmental organization called Stop HIV, in an interview. "We've done studies with young people and we've found it's too costly for them to acquire condoms without going through the public institutions."
There are about 100,000 people living with HIV or AIDS in Venezuela, or 0.6 percent of the population, according to the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.
"There is no sustained information campaign in Venezuela to prevent unwanted pregnancies, STDs, and HIV," Reyna told VICE News. "The harm to people and their right to health is immense."
"They have disappeared," a young woman named Rebecca told VICE News, referring to the condom shortage. "And birth control pills are another story. Last year, I had to change brands three times, because they were out of mine."
With condoms and contraceptive pills in short supply, Venezuelans risk further aggravating the already sobering statistics on teen pregnancy. According to figures from the World Bank, after Guyana, Venezuela had the highest pregnancy rate in 2012 for girls ages 15 to 19 in South America.
In Venezuela, abortion is illegal, except in situations when the mother's life is threatened. Yet even with that exception, 16 of every 1,000 maternal deaths are teenage girls in the 15-19 age group.
We visited various pharmacies and shops in Caracas, hunting for condoms to buy. There was not a trace of them anywhere. In fact, in many stores, the sections where condoms normally sell had simply disappeared, replaced with shampoos, for example.
"We haven't been receiving merchandise since November," said a stocker at a store in Los Palos Grandes, an affluent Caracas neighborhood.
"Three days ago, a few arrived, but they were gone immediately. It had been a while since we had any [condoms]," a stocker in the middle-class Caracas neighborhood of Sabana Grande told VICE News.
'I brought back several boxes from Las Vegas. … It's an investment in the future.'
Finally, at a supermarket in El Cafetal, a wealthier area of Caracas, I managed to find a box of unreasonably priced condoms.
The pack of three Playboy brand condoms was priced at 120 bolivars, which amounts to about 19 dollars at the official exchange rate. This would have amounted to about 0.68 dollars at the black market or new floating exchange rate — if only Venezuelans were able to trade with it to purchase health-related items.
A local restaurant also had condoms for sale, but from a generic-looking brand called "USA."
"I've never seen that brand before. I wouldn't even dare put them on," said Isaac T., another young Venezuelan in a condom pinch.
As with other scarce goods, Venezuelans so far are turning to friends or contacts traveling outside of the country, to request foreign deliveries.
"A relationship between a couple who doesn't have sex is pointless," surmised Antonio P.
Whereas often people in Venezuela ask others to bring back goods like books, or a specific moisturizer, or a bottle of olive oil, now they ask for medicine, tampons, and for the past few months, condoms. And the chatter is growing.
"A friend brought me back a box of 36 from Miami," said Ana B. "They expire in 2018, so I have plenty of time to use them if I end up single."
"I brought back several boxes from Las Vegas. I saw them and didn't think twice […] It's an investment in the future," said Diego B.
Ricardo R. asked a friend in Panama to pick up condoms for him. "I'm going to pay her with a gift card that I bought on Amazon. I can't do it any other way," he said.
'Alternatives? I guess going out to do things in public, so we don't think about fucking.'
But there are still many others who can not turn to friends outside the country, or don't have foreign currency to purchase condoms online.
"I bought a lot of them in 2014, when you could find them. If I run out, I will have to be abstinent until I find some," said Juan P. "I have adapted to the unadaptable, to menstrual cycles, to limiting myself, to breathing … It is bread today and hunger tomorrow. And this is a necessity, a human right."
Some have resigned to the fact that they will not be able to find condoms for a while. But for how long?
"Alternatives? I guess going out to do things in public, so we don't think about fucking," said Juan A. jokingly.
"Next comes tantric sex, or a lot of karate," said Eduardo D.
Follow Alicia Hernandez on Twitter @por_puesto.