The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Venezuela, screaming over ice cream

Setting aside for a moment whether it is appropriate to be serving trout-flavored ice cream, let alone scoops of something called "mushroom in wine sauce," the closure of a favorite Venezuelan ice cream shop has turned into a new symbol of the country's fast-melting economy.

This week the Heladeria Coromoto, which boasts 863 flavors and a spot in the Guinness World Records book, told customers that it was shutting down "because of a milk shortage."

In a year of scarcities that began with a toilet-paper panic at Venezuelan supermarkets, the closure seemed to complete the digestive cycle of bad news. Corn meal, cooking oil, eggs, butter and beef all flickered in and out of Venezuelan pantries in 2014, a year marked by deadly anti-government protests and the plunging political fortunes of President Nicolás Maduro.

Now, government opponents said, even dessert is ruined.

The famous ice cream shop, located in Merida, a university town in the Andes, is both a tourist attraction and the quintessential expression of a certain Venezuelan mentality that derives from sitting on the world's largest petroleum reserves.

The South American nation has a reputation for consumer extremes and is famous for its love of imported whisky, outrageously cheap gasoline and surgically enhanced beauty queens. Oil wealth can bring long periods of effortless abundance, of course, so why not make beer-flavored ice cream?

This sort of leisurely prosperity never lasts, as Venezuelans are now being reminded. The per-barrel price of Venezuelan oil is ending the year south of $50, losing nearly half its value since September. That's devastating for an economy that depends on petroleum exports for 96 percent of its hard currency earnings.

The scarcities aren't likely to go away anytime soon, but that hasn't stopped the Maduro government from seeing the alleged milk shortage as a new skirmish in an "economic war" waged by the opposition.

After government critics seized on the news of the ice cream shop's abrupt closure, Venezuela's Tourism Ministry rejected the allegations of a dairy pinch, saying Monday that other ice-cream parlors in Merida and elsewhere in the country were scooping along just fine.

Instead, the ministry said on its Web site that the shop's owner was to blame, saying he was "an opposition supporter, with every right to be so, except that he's telling a lie and his action was planned, through the media, as part of a low-intensity war against the present government."

Local reporters were unable to reach him.

Merida is in one of the areas hit hard by the smuggling of contraband goods into Colombia, where foodstuffs — including dairy products — are worth far more than on the Venezuela side of the border. Keeping 863 flavors of ice cream on hand under such conditions can't be easy.

The Maduro government has launched a crackdown in recent months with tighter border enforcement, but critics say the problem will only grow worse until the socialist government lifts its currency controls.