CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan voters this week sent a resounding message that they are not happy. The governing leftist movement launched by Hugo Chavez and currently led by Nicolas Maduro was punished in Sunday's congressional elections, with the opposition taking 112 of the 167 National Assembly seats, a super-majority that could allow them to change the constitution or push for Maduro's ouster before his term expires.
Indignation was fueled in part by the dire economic situation. Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world. Its economy is expected to contract 10 percent this year. Crime is spiking. Being a consumer in Venezuela right now is mostly a miserable experience. Hours in line, rations, shortages. It's hard to find a shop of any kind that doesn't feel like a Best Buy on Black Friday. But it's not because people are excited for sales. They're just desperate.
As Jefferson Gebler, a 25-year-old tattoo artist put it while waiting at the back of the churning, agitated crowd at a bare-shelved pharmacy in Catia, a poor neighborhood and that once was a bastion of Chavismo: "Welcome to hell."
On the facade of the Bicentenario government-run supermarket, located in an overgrown lot near crisscrossing highways, is a huge head of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America. Inside the market, which Chavez expropriated five years ago, the late president's slogans are displayed, such as this one: "The essential cause of the Bolivarian revolution is to look for a better lifestyle for everyone, in the fight to install in Venezuela a new social, economic and political system."
It's about the size of a Costco or a Walmart and all the products are sold at fixed government prices. On a recent day, the shelves weren't totally empty, but selection was limited. One whole aisle was taken up by a single brand of liquid detergent, called Clic, selling for 603.68 Bolivares (67 cents) for a one-liter bottle. Another aisle had just canned tomatoes for 379.68 Bolivares (42 cents). For 154 Bolivares (17 cents), you could get around 2 pounds of bananas. But there was no Harina P.A.N., the corn flour used to make the arepas that are a Venezuelan staple. No cooking oil. No rice. Very little meat besides one type of wrapped Christmas ham.
The shortages have intensified this year amid the worsening economic crisis, forcing customers to scour the city for different products. There is a flourishing black market, but those prices tend to be two to five times higher. Ingrid Ramos, a 39-year-old single mother with two daughters, who sells children's clothes in the street, would rather wait for hours in lines than pay more than necessary. The prices of products that aren't regulated by the government, or are sold on the black market, are rising uncontrollably. Inflation is estimated at 200 percent. Stores change their prices daily.
On Tuesday, Ramos began her shopping at 6 a.m., waited three and a half hours at a pharmacy, then an hour and a half at the Bicentenario supermarket. "Shopping always takes the whole morning now," she said. "But I’ll wait in line, I don’t care, as long as I can buy my things at the fair price."
Some products that get heavy government subsidies, such as gasoline, are nearly free. The continent's leading oil producer has been reluctant to raise prices, despite the economic woes, because the memory is still fresh of the civil unrest in 1989 that followed a gas price hike by an earlier government. That incident, called the "Caracazo," involved riots and left hundreds dead. It helped propel a coup attempt by Hugo Chavez in 1992.
Today there is a thriving smuggling market for cheap Venezuelan gasoline, some of which is trucked over the border to Colombia. At one of the state-run oil company PDVSA's gas stations in Caracas, where I went to fill up, you can buy 31 liters of gasoline for 3.01 Bolivares. In the U.S., that would be 8 gallons of unleaded gas for three-tenths of a cent.
Freddy Henriquez, a 41-year-old telecom technician, called his boss to say he couldn't work Tuesday, as soon as he heard that the Unicasa supermarket in the Colinas de Bello Monte neighborhood had eggs. It had been nearly a month since he'd eaten them. He didn't know when he'd get another chance. A carton of 30 eggs was selling at the government-regulated rate of 420 Bolivares (46 cents). Soon a line of shopping carts, every one of them stocked with eggs, snaked throughout the store. After standing in line for an hour, Henriquez said: "it's moving pretty quickly."
At this middle-class private supermarket, there was more variety than in the government-run shop, but certain products that people used to rely on had vanished. There was no fresh beef or chicken. Instead, the display cases in the butcher section were filled with chicken nuggets.
In these times of shortage, the government tries to prohibit hoarding by limiting how much people buy. That meant Henriquez, and the other shoppers could only buy two cartons of eggs. These limits apply to a whole range of products: You can buy one oil filter per month, two toothbrushes. When shoppers check out, they have to show an ID card and push their thumbprints into a scanner.
"I think in another country, they would have already burned down the White House and overthrown the president," Henriquez said. "We are too peaceful, too patient and tolerant."
Caracas shopping isn't only empty shelves. You can buy much of what you want if you've got the cash. Things were bustling at the Bodegon Beethoven, a liquor store, as customers snapped up Christmas booze baskets. One of the owners, Hernan Salazar, explained that the crisis has created a vast gap between the prices of imported and domestic products.
In part due to plunging world oil prices -- oil sales account for about 97 percent of Venezuela's exports -- government revenues have collapsed. The government maintains three exchange rates, from as low as 6.30 Bolivares to the dollar, a rate intended for those importing food and medicine, to about 200 Bolivares to the dollar for businesses to import products. There is also a fourth rate floating on the black market, which now values one dollar at 900 Bolivares (which I used to make the conversions in this post.) A liquor importer is supposed to be able to buy dollars at the third rate -- 200 Bolivares to the dollar -- but when Salazar goes on line to buy from the government, say, $30,000 at that rate for a shipping container of Napa Valley wine, the government more often than not says no dollars are available. In these cash-strapped times, Chardonnay is not a priority. Salazar could import at the black market rate but chooses not to.
"First, because that rate is informal. And secondly, because it’s very expensive," Salazar said. "If you specialize only in imports, right now you're in trouble."
The imported liquor he sells includes Hugo Casanova, a Chilean sauvignon blanc that costs 21,000 Bolivares ($23), which is twice the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela. Some domestic products, with the liquor, bottle, label, and cap all made in Venezuela, can be found far more cheaply, such as Don Diego brandy that costs 650 Bolivares (72 cents) per bottle. Venezuelan rum, known for its quality, has had a good year, Salazar said, as foreign buyers can now snap it up for little.
Shoppers can still find luxury goods in Venezuela. At a fancy deli in the wealthy hilltop neighborhood near the U.S. Embassy, one can buy Swiss Miss pudding cups for 4,250 Bolivares ($4.72) or Norwegian smoked salmon for 16,900 Bolivares ($18.77).
The manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that 80 percent of his clients are now foreigners, including many from the embassy, because the prices are out of range for most Venezuelans. He admitted that his business isn't wholly legal. To get these high-end imported goods, he works with someone in the government who has access to the most favorable exchange rate, buys from a Costco in Miami with cheap dollars and has products shipped by boat to Venezuela. The middle men resell the goods at a healthy profit.
"You get the products from people in the government. They're very high up," the manager said. "It's a better business than drug trafficking."
For those who don't want to wait in line for hours, there is a thriving black market, which in Caracas's poor neighborhoods operates openly on the street. These markets are run by "Bachaqueros," a nickname that comes from the big rainforest ants that carry things from one place to another. At a sidewalk stall in the Petare neighborhood, Angelica Gonzalez, 33, was selling Pampers and soaps and shampoos. She gets the diapers from a guy who waits in line for hours at other stores. He can buy them for about 280 Bolivares at the regulated price, resells them to Gonzalez at 800, who herself re-sells on the black market for 1,000. ($1.11). Nearby, another woman was selling for 1,000 Bolivares a carton of 30 eggs similar to the one that Freddy Henriquez had waited more than an hour to buy at 420 Bolivares in the private grocery store.
"We are bachaqueros," Gonzalez said proudly. "They talk bad about us but everyone buys from us, survives from us."
But she barely can make ends meet. With her salary, of about 11,000 Bolivares per month, she could buy 11 packs of the Pampers she sells, and nothing else.