As Venezuela’s economy hits rock bottom, the local gambling industry is described as the “lone growth industry” in the country. A game called Los Animalitos, or Little Animals, is the current rage. For many Venezuelans, gaming is a way to forget about life’s struggles.
Rose Garcia, a Venezuela psychologist, said, “In a crisis like the one we’re going through, people drink and gamble more to escape from reality.”
Other Venezuelans have turned to gambling to raise cash, after losing their jobs and other means of income. Many consider gambling to be their only source of income. Whatever their motivation, gambling in Venezuela has become more popular as the crisis has deepened.
Between races, lotteries, and other games, many Venezuelans seem to have found that — though the winner is not guaranteed — gambling appears to be their only way out. The illusion of a “payday” from gambling seems to give the gamblers a little hope.
Venezuela’s Economic Downturn
The country of Venezuela is experiencing the worst economic and political crisis in its history. Venezuela has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, so its leaders traditionally have built the economy based on oil production. 50% of the economy was based on selling oil, so when the global price of oil took a major downturn 3 years ago, the Venezuelan economy cratered.
Venezuela currently has an inflation rate of over 400 percent and a volatile exchange rate. Venezuela has massive debt, while inflation continues to soar. As a result, average Venezuelans are experiencing shortages of the most basic items, including everything from flour to car batteries.
The biggest loss is the diminished real-term wages. The government is running low on cash, leaving a lot of businesses to convert to other means of payment, especially electronic transactions. According to the Central Bank of Venezuela, the country is estimated to have $7.2 billion in debt and only $10.4 billion in foreign reserves left.
Los Animalitos Kiosks
Many gambling options exist, from traditional betting at race courses to back-street illegal betting parlors. The top choice is a game called “Los Animalitos”, or the Little Animal. Los Animalitos is a roulette-style lottery game that many Venezuelans play every day.
Los Animalitos tickets are bought at a neighborhood kiosk (pictured above), with players lined up daily to choose their favorite lucky animal: The Whale, The Dog, or The Zebra. Tickets vary in price, with the cheapest ticket costing just 100 bolivars, which translates to a quarter of a U.S. cent at the current black-market currency rate. That is more than 10 times less than that you will find at the official exchange houses.
Several scheduled times a day, the results from daily Los Animalitos drawings appear on YouTube. This daily contest goes through various rounds, which helps to hold people’s interest and provides more chances to win than most traditional betting options. Because of the suspense, Venezuelans find Los Animalitos an entertaining distraction from their troubles.
Los Animalitos’ Popularity
It’s a widespread phenomenon. Carlos Hernandez of the Caracas Chronicles website said he found 13 kioks selling ticket within two blocks of his house in the Puerto Ordaz neighborhood.
Hernandez calls him neighborhood the “Las Vegas of lottery agencies”, because “there’s a place selling Animalitos in every direction.”
One gets the idea that Puerto Ordaz is more ordinary than extraordinary, though. Due to Los Animalitos’ popularity, every residential neighborhood is becoming a Las Vegas for Little Animals kiosks.
Los Animalitos Players Tell Their Stories
Veruska Torres, 26, said she plays Los Animalitos every day. Torres was recently let go from her job as a nurse in a pharmacy. She says that she often plays more than a dozen times daily at the kiosk in Catia.
Ms. Torres said she is by no means the only person she knows playing the game. Torres said, “Most people I see playing the lottery are unemployed, trying to make a bit extra this way, because the payouts are good.”
Veruska Torres said that, some days, she spends between 5,000-10,000 bolivars. When she wins, the out-of-work nurse can make up to 50,000 or 60,000 bolivars in winnings. That is more than a quarter of the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela.
On the days she makes out with high winnings, she is able to split the winnings, providing for her little boy, buying food and diapers and re-investing the rest into her next day’s lottery purchase.
Eduardo Liendo: “It Helped Me a Lot”
The winning stories can be found everywhere. As usual, gamblers prefer to talk about their winning bets instead of their losses. Another frequent player, Eduardo Liendo, 63, says he plays often. “It helped me a lot.”
Liendo recently lost his house and is currently living in his car in Caracas’ Propatria neighborhood. Mr. Liendo had a recent successful punt on the Animalitos game. In his telling, he chose to go with the dog figure after his own had died. The dog had a significance to him because of his father’s death.
Problem Gambling in Venezuela
Of course, out-of-work Venezuelans who turn to Los Animalitos for answers are not likely to win. One accounting of the game suggested that 38 people lose each day for every winner. One pays for their family’s needs, while 38 other families do without. The gaming operators pocket the rest.
In an economy where bolivars will be worth less tomorrow than they are today, it might make a kind of paradoxical sense to make a wager on a lottery with low odds. The money might be worthless tomorrow, while (with a little luck) you might have enough to pay for milk and diapers today.
Still, gambling on the lottery is not a sustainable personal finance strategy. In Venezuela, Los Animalitos spreads more misery than it solves. People might argue that American lottery games are a tax on the poor, but most Americans have a roof over their head and a job. Their lotto betting or trips to the casino are not going to cost them the mortgage, though it might hurt the bank account.
Preying on the hopes and desperation of Venezuela’s poor is a different matter entirely. Using cute cartoon animals to lure gamblers adds insult to injury.
Los Animalitos Gaming Operators
The gaming operators that run Los Animalitos games have a nebulous background, but Venezuelan authorities say they are private companies. Some may even be local regional authorities. Whatever the case, the operators have the cash on hand to invest in hiring cashiers for the Los Animalitos kiosks.
Business is booming more than ever. Those reporting from Venezuela’s streets say the lines are longer than they have ever been. While the economic crisis drags on, the local gambling economy has blown up.