Parents in Venezuela have a big mess on their hands. Kimberly-Clark, one of the country’s biggest diaper producers, said earlier this month it’s leaving the country. That means the unsavory quest to contain baby waste just got exponentially harder.
Diapers, like other basic personal hygiene products including toilet paper and sanitary pads, have become rarefied commodities in Venezuela. The country’s economic crisis, and the government policies that are fanning it, have made producing them practically impossible. That’s what Kimberly-Clark said July 9 when it announced it was leaving Venezuela indefinitely.
Producers have to pay higher prices for everything due to rampant inflation, but can’t charge more for their products due to government-imposed price controls for staples. Because of strict currency controls, foreign companies can’t repatriate their profits either.
Then there’s the impossibility of making anything without raw materials. Most of a diaper’s components, from tapes to absorbent fabric (Spanish), can’t be found locally. But the government isn’t letting companies exchange bolívars into dollars to import them.
Over the past two months, Kimberly-Clark has had to shut down most of its production lines because it didn’t have any stuff to make its products, it said. That wiped out a huge chunk of the country’s diaper supplies: The company accounted for 41% of the market in Venezuela last year, according to Euromonitor International.
Procter & Gamble, another multinational that’s taken big losses in Venezuela, made up another 38%. The company said in a statement that its factories in the country are fully operational, but declined to say at what capacity they are running.
The dearth of diapers is undeniable, though. From 2010 to 2015, per capita use of nappies by babies and toddlers dropped by 9%, to 506 diapers a year, Euromonitor data show. That’s about half as many as a typical child in other Latin American countries, such as Mexico and Argentina. And it’s not because Venezuelan babies go to the bathroom any less. (We’ll leave you to imagine what that means.)
Even before Kimberly-Clark’s withdrawal, diapers were hard to get. For a while now, buying them from a supermarket or pharmacy has required standing in line for several hours—if they’re in stock at all. Buyers who aren’t visibly pregnant or in the company of a diaper-clad child must present a birth certificate or a sonogram to prove one does indeed exist or is on the way.
Such rationing is meant to curb hoarding for resale in the black market. Not that it works, given the huge margins diapers can fetch when sold illegally. A package of 15 medium-sized diapers, which officially costs around 250 bolívars (Spanish, pdf, pg. 4), can go for 2,500 bolívars, or $250 at the official government exchange rate, per reports from regular diaper shoppers.
Pedro Rosas, an economist who lives in Caracas, had a head start. After he found out his wife was pregnant in November, he set off on a diaper chase. He’s accumulated a stash of around 1,000 that fills his closets and the space under his bed. Still, that’s not going to be enough to get his three-week-old daughter through her nappy-wearing stage.
Rosas has another problem. For the past couple of months, he’s only been able to find diapers in medium size, much too large for a newborn. Like many parents, he’s resorting to informal social-media networks to barter.
“I’m lucky that I can pay black-market prices,” he says. “Many people are going back to cloth diapers.”
That brings up other problems that are arguably worse. Laundry detergent can be as hard to find as disposable diapers. One mother interviewed by online news site Infobae said she had to throw out her baby’s soiled cloth diapers because she couldn’t find anything to wash them with.
Some are finding levity in the nappy crisis. One Venezuelan posted a tutorial on YouTube on how to make “revolutionary” diapers out of the pads used to protect mattresses from bed-wetting (assuming you have the required raw materials at hand). The scissors, at least, should be easy to find.
Meanwhile, president Nicolás Maduro has said he’s coming to the aid of Venezuelan babies. His administration is taking over Kimberly-Clark’s factory to restore supplies. Desperate parents shouldn’t hold their hopes up, though. Neither his government nor the one that preceded it have a great track record of running the companies they’ve nationalized.