CARACAS, Venezuela – The general strike against President Hugo Chavez has cut not only vital supplies of oil, but also another precious liquid in Venezuela: beer.
Since the strike began Dec. 2, cutting into the beer supplies as the nation's top producer stopped brewing, beer-thirsty Venezuelans have had to turn to whiskey and other alternatives.
"Right now, we drunks are drinking the good stuff," Jose Gonzalez, a retired government worker, joked after buying a $28 bottle of whiskey. "But if the strike continues, we are going to end up broke."
It's a bit of a sacrifice for beer-loving Venezuelans, who like to socialize over a glass in neighborhood Spanish-style taverns or have a cold one to combat the tropical heat.
According to Cerveceria Regional, a Venezuelan subsidiary of Brazil's Brahma brewery, Venezuela is the No. 3 beer producer in Latin America.
Per capita, Venezuelans are the biggest beer consumers in Latin America, drinking an average of 20 gallons annually. Mexico comes next at 13 gallons; Brazil, 12 gallons.
But into the strike's fourth week, beer is becoming hard if not impossible to find in Caracas liquor stores and supermarkets. It is still available in many bars and restaurants, but selections have shrunk.
Merchants complain their profits will be as flat as day-old beer during what should be a peak season.
"Normally, December is the best month of the year for us. It's when we sell the most, for parties," said Marco Dos Santos, a Caracas liquor store owner. "We still have rum, whiskey, and wines, but they could be gone in a few days and we'll have to close."
Dos Santos added that no products have arrived at his shop in two weeks. Prospects of replenishment soon were dim.
Empresas Polar, Venezuela's biggest brewer and one of the world's largest, stopped production to support the strike.
Soldiers recently raided a Polar warehouse looking for other products, such as cornflower and cooking oil, after Chavez ordered authorities to distribute hoarded products deemed essential to the nation's welfare.
Beer isn't on the list, and the soldiers only found thousands of bottles waiting to be filled. Polar said it is taking legal action to prevent more raids.