Venezuela's new taxi drivers: moonlighting soldiers

San Cristobal (Venezuela) (AFP) –


In crisis-hit Venezuela, even soldiers are struggling to make ends meet on meager salaries rendered practically worthless by the highest inflation in the world and have taken to moonlighting -- as taxi drivers.

Some have taken to sneaking out of their barracks to pick up customers needing a lift -- a job that can earn them 60 times their monthly salary with just one trip.

"I'm a father and given the situation in the country, my salary is worth nothing," a 39-year-old sergeant told AFP under the condition of anonymity.

"I do my taxi journeys and I earn much more than in my other job -- that's why I do it," he added.

The sergeant can earn more than $500 for driving passengers from San Cristobal on the border with Colombia to the capital Caracas, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) to the northeast.

His monthly wage as a soldier -- nine million bolivars -- is worth just eight dollars.

However, regular taxi drivers are furious and say members of the armed forces have an unfair advantage: their uniform.

"They don't get stopped at police checkpoints" where drivers are often asked for a bribe, and "they don't have problems getting fuel," complained Eusebio Correa, a 57-year-old career taxi driver.

"The military that should be providing security are now chauffeurs in uniform."

- 'Respect' for the uniform -

Sourcing fuel for vehicles is a major issue in Venezuela, but especially in remote Tachira state and its capital San Cristobal.

Fuel shortages have led to people waiting at gas stations for days at a time to fill their tanks, or alternatively turning to the black market, where prices are considerably higher.

That added cost has subsequently pushed up the price of taxi rides.

But since the military controls gas stations, soldiers don't face the same restrictions the general population does.

"This uniform that I wear represents respect. With the uniform, I can come and go anywhere," admitted the sergeant.

The salaries of the rank and file may have plummeted alongside everyone else's earnings in a country that has been in recession for seven years, but the military as an institution remains powerful.

It is the main power propping up the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

The military also controls oil, mining and food distribution companies, as well as customs and several key ministries.

Venezuela's opposition and some rights organizations claim many top military officials have gotten rich through corruption.

The taxi-driving sergeant said he started "escaping" his barracks to moonlight once the country was put under a coronavirus lockdown.

"For the release permits, sometimes I ask for medical leave. You even make up stuff to your own colleagues. I know many who do this job, right up to our superiors," said the sergeant.

Under the lockdown, regular comings and goings were restricted -- and only authorized via passes issued by the military.

- 'Afraid' -

In Tachira state, there are "military taxi drivers" of every rank, right up to generals, several insiders familiar with the business told AFP.

A 32-year-old lieutenant, who also asked for anonymity, said he had thought about getting into driving but has so far decided against it for security reasons.

"You're afraid that one of these passengers could be transporting drugs," he said.

"We also get stopped at checkpoints from other military branches or the police, and imagine if I got myself into trouble for a little bit of money."

He has not yet ruled it out, though.

"What I earn isn't enough and I have to look after my mother and two children," he said.

To avoid problems at checkpoints, drivers and passengers agree on a story: that they're family members or heading the same way.

It's a taxi service that often works on word of mouth.

Jose Pastran took a 700-kilometer journey from Maracay to San Cristobal in a bus driven by a soldier.

"It cost me $20, plus a dollar for the hand luggage," he said, adding: "I got the contact through a friend."

The sergeant says he can afford to be picky and only embarks on a journey once his car is full with four passengers.

"Right now, I have customers," he added.