How Public-Sector Workers Fell Out of Love with Chavismo

Venezuelan Demonstrations Grow over “Starvation Salaries,” Perennial Inflation

The monthly minimum wage in Venezuela is the lowest in South America at 130 bolívares. (Sebastián Díaz)

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Key Findings:

  • Public-sector workers have been protesting on the streets for more than seven weeks for better salaries and working conditions despite extreme weather and persecution from law enforcement officials. This has led, in particular, to widespread closures of educational institutions.
  • In Venezuela, public-sector workers’ wages go from $5 to $25 per month, while a subsistence level of food for a household costs around $400. Venezuelan households have reduced the quality and quantity of their food, causing malnourishment to rise.
  • In response to the protests, the Chavista regime has approved a law to replace teachers with high-school students at the earliest levels of education, such as preschool. Regarding worker demands, dictatorship officials have remained silent.


Since 2018, when the Chavista regime reneged on employment contracts, Venezuela’s public-sector workers have demonstrated against poor living conditions under the Nicolás Maduro dictatorship. Due to the regime’s economic policies, inflation has soared for the past decade and destroyed salary purchasing power.

In the last weeks of January 2023, daily demonstrations began to occur after the regime abandoned the negotiation for a minimum-wage increase. Despite Venezuela’s reported economic growth in 2022—with per capita GDP growth of 18 percent, according to the Venezuelan Central Bank—nine out of 10 Venezuelans remain in poverty.

The monthly minimum wage in Venezuela is the lowest in South America at 130 bolívares. That is around $5.40, according to the official exchange rate of the Venezuelan Central Bank, while the average wage for the private sector in Caracas is $139. Workers in the public sector, such as school teachers and medical professionals, and pensioners earn between the minimum wage and $25 per month. Workers have described these wages as “starvation salaries.”

According to the Venezuelan Financial Observatory (VFO)—an independent NGO that analyzes the country’s economy—the cost of food staples for a five-person family reached $397 in January 2023 and the interannual inflation rate by the end of 2022 was 440 percent.

This investigation seeks to explain and clarify the situation that public-sector professionals are currently going through in Venezuela. The Impunity Observer interviewed Gricelda Sánchez, president of the independent NGO Fordisi; María Oropeza, coordinator of the opposition party Vente in the Portuguesa province; and Santos Mendoza, a member of and advocate for the Fenatev teacher union.

Demonstrations against the Maduro Regime

Nationwide demonstrations in Venezuela have ballooned in 2023. This is mostly due to the low salaries that public-sector workers and pensioners are receiving, in addition to the lack of medical care in public hospitals. The Venezuelan Conflict Observatory (VCO) registered 1,027 demonstrations in January 2023, while in January 2022 it registered only 173.

According to Mendoza and Sánchez, who participate daily in the protests, the demonstrations will only end once the regime reaches an agreement with the workers to increase their salaries, insurance, and medical-care benefits. “In the Portuguesa province, we are going out to the streets every day at 7:30 a.m. to fight for our rights,” Mendoza contends. Demonstrators have been under the sun and rain for over five hours for more than 47 days.

The role of law enforcement agents during the demonstrations has varied according to the region and city. According to Mendoza and Sánchez, in large cities such as Caracas law enforcement agents are less aggressive against demonstrators than in rural areas.

Mendoza told the Impunity Observer that demonstrators in Portuguesa feel “harassed and watched” by state institutions such as the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service. According to his experience, demonstrators have found unidentified infiltrators. Teachers have forced suspected agents provocateurs to leave the demonstrations as they are believed to have ties to the regime.

On the other hand, Sánchez has experienced safe demonstrations in Caracas due to the presence of law enforcement agents in the streets, who escort the demonstrators. She is aware the Caracas case is not the same as for the rest of the country, where regime repression is more visible during demonstrations than in the capital.

The regime has yet to convict or imprison any demonstrators from the 2023 daily protests. Nevertheless, the regime has not released physical-education teacher Robert Franco, jailed in December 2020, for previous demonstrations against workers’ poor conditions. The regime claims that Franco participated in a plot to stop Venezuela’s most recent Congress—with a Chavista majority—from taking office. Two years later, his trial remains pending.

What Workers Are Asking For

In addition to better wages, workers are also going out to the streets “for the sake of the country’s democracy and freedom,” as President of the Venezuelan Federation of Teachers Carmen Márquez says. Mendoza, Oropeza, and Sánchez agree that workers recognize that the Maduro regime has led to the current crisis due to its failed economic policies. For our interviewees, a solution starts with transparent elections and regaining civil liberties.

Workers, mainly from the public sector, are having a tough time surviving because of their low salaries in comparison to the prices of food staples, gasoline, and other goods. Whatever salaries may be, though, workers face escalating inflation that swiftly blunts their purchasing power. Mendoza claims that workers are aware that increasing the minimum wage will not solve the problem. Rather, it is a temporary Band-Aid.

Sánchez, leader of Fordisi, explains that the workers are asking the Maduro regime to index their wages to the cost of the basic food basket. She claims that indexing their wages would go hand in hand with Article 91 of the Venezuelan Constitution: “Every worker has the right to a wage that allows him to live with dignity and cover the basic needs of the worker himself and his family …. The state will guarantee a minimum wage that will be reviewed every year, considering the cost of the basic food basket.”

Teacher unions are asking for a raise in their wages to $600 and for it to be paid in US dollars, so they alleviate suffering from Venezuelan inflation. Sánchez claims that receiving their wages in dollars would be “an important improvement” because Venezuela’s economy is already dollarized, albeit informally.

The Venezuelan Federation of Teachers—a teacher’s union made up of 27 provincial unions—issued a public statement on February 15 in which it blamed the executive branch for abandoning dialogue with teachers in December 2022. The statement also encouraged the regime to negotiate with the workers to find a solution to the low-wage problem and the lack of medical care for public-sector workers.

Teachers are also asking for better insurance coverage for funeral expenses in the case of their own deaths. Oropeza and Sánchez say that teachers are asking for this because there have been recent tragedies in which workers have died and their families have not been able to afford funeral services. Families have not been able to pay their respects to their late family members.

How the Regime Has Responded

The regime has remained silent about the workers’ daily demonstrations. It has also not explained why it abandoned dialogue with workers regarding a wage increase. The Chavista regime, however, has reacted with a new law enabling (1) the replacement of teachers with nonunion members and (2) the suspension of public-sector workers who demonstrate.

Congress, where Chavismo has a majority, approved a law on February 9 for high-school students to replace unioned school teachers at the earliest levels of education in the country, such as preschool. The law’s official name is the Student Participation Law. In a press conference on February 23, Maduro signed the law, making it official: “This historic law opens the door for students’ democratic rights, participation, and decision-making in the country.”

Mendoza and Sánchez, who belong to different teacher unions, contend that the law is unconstitutional as students should not be able to work as teachers. They claim the recently approved law violates Article 104 of the constitution, which states “Education must be managed by people with the appropriate academic background.” The constitution, however, fails to explicitly define what “appropriate academic background” means.

Sánchez told the Impunity Observer that she believes the Maduro regime passed the Student Participation Law to distract teachers from their current goals. They are to show the world the starvation salaries and achieve substantive change for public-sector workers.

Oropeza and Sánchez have witnessed regime suspensions of teachers and other public-sector workers for participating in demonstrations and expressing their opinions. This is a way for the regime to stop workers from receiving their salaries. All our interviewees assert that this is a way to undermine the demonstrations and the freedom of expression of public-sector workers. Sánchez believes the regime uses these sanctions to scare workers into self-censorship and prevent them from standing up for their beliefs.

According to Oropeza’s observations, the Maduro regime works closely with its Community Councils—akin to Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution—to identify dissidents. In June 2022, the regime suspended the salaries of over 3,000 teachers for demonstrating. While fresh data is not yet available, the numbers would likely be an order of magnitude higher, on account of consistent and growing protests.

How Workers Survive Venezuela’s Low Salaries

To provide for their families, Venezuelan public-sector workers seek other jobs and informal income in their free time. In Mendoza’s experience, most teachers go to the streets to sell whatever they can get their hands on, as they try to buy food for their families.

Oropeza told the Impunity Observer that workers in Venezuela often have little choice but to consume unhealthy foods. That means low prices but little protein or nutritional value. Meat, for example, costs around $10 per kilogram, almost twice the monthly minimum wage. The popular products for families with low incomes include corn, rice, bread, and root vegetables. Consequently, the Global Hunger Index has identified an increase in the country’s undernourishment from 11 percent in 2014 to 22.2 percent in 2022.

A 2020 UN report, with the latest data available, asserted that 74 percent of Venezuelan families had to reduce the variety and quality of the foods they consumed to maintain quantity. The same report found that 33 percent of households had agreed to work for food, and 20 percent had sold possessions to buy more food.

Teacher Leidy Mendoza, for example, claimed on television in February that her salary was 250 bolívares, which equates to less than $11. She asserts that her monthly wage is only enough to fill half of her car’s gas tank and not enough for any other expenses. According to our interviewees, this is a common situation among public-sector workers in Venezuela.

According to ANOVA, a consultancy firm based in Caracas, 24.3 percent of Venezuelan households receive remittances. According to Oropeza, this is another way that helps Venezuelans survive low salaries, although often it is not enough. ANOVA’s analysis asserts that Venezuelan households receive on average $65 per month.

The situation for Venezuelan workers is miserable due to their low salaries and the broader economic crisis the country is going through due to the regime’s policies. Venezuelans have had to come up with out-of-the-box solutions to provide for their families such as working multiple jobs and selling what little they own. Malnourishment rates in Venezuela have been rising due to household inability to afford proteins, which on their own consume all or more than public-sector salaries. Given no regime response aside from retribution, no resolution appears on the horizon.

Mauro Echeverría

Mauro Echeverría is Econ Americas’ deputy editor. He holds a BA in international relations with minors in political science and anthropology from the San Francisco University of Quito. Mauro leads the research on local economic development at the Ecuadorian think tank Libre Razón.

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