In Venezuela, the new year has brought little change to the scarcity problem that is becoming alarming: long lines across the country to buy even the most basic products.
Caracas, Venezuela – A joke currently going around Caracas, goes something like this:
Q: How do you know when it’s a good time to go grocery shopping in Venezuela?
A: Whenever you see a long line of people at a supermarket.
That might seem counterintuitive, but if there’s a line at a Venezuelan market, it means that the shop still has valuable staples like flour, milk, coffee or meat.
And if there are soldiers or police officers guarding the place, you might find something even scarcer—like shampoo, deodorant or diapers.
On Friday, María Ramos went shopping for produce at a supermarket in the Santa Fe neighborhood in southeast Caracas, but she found out that the market was selling personal hygiene products, so she got in line.
“I spent five hours [in line] to buy three bars of soap, two bottles of shampoo, two deodorants for women and two deodorants for men,” Ramos told FNL. “It was sold as a pack, so you couldn’t choose. I’ve never used the brand of shampoo but, after all, I was lucky to find it.”
The next day, she waited four hours in line at the butcher’s shop.
If we had no food in Venezuela, we would not have these [supermarket] lines.
- Carlos Osorio, Venezuelan Vice President of Food Security and Sovereignty
For Venezuelans, the beginning of 2015 has meant standing in lines for long hours to buy products that have been scarce for a year now but that completely disappeared during the last weeks of December.
Many of these goods began to trickle into the stores last week, and ever since thousands have been flooding supermarkets.
“The long lines are because of the inadequate supply of goods,” Roberto León Parilli, president of the Venezuelan National Alliance of Users and Consumers (ANAUCO), told Fox News Latino. “As long as products are not permanently present on the shelves, it’s logical that people rush into the supermarkets every time they have the chance to buy them.”
León Parilli added, “This is one of the worst moments experienced by the Venezuelan consumer. We’re witnessing unprecedented levels of scarcity. In recent times there have been intermittent shortages but this is a widespread situation affecting all areas: food, medicine, spare parts for vehicles, etc.”
Many residents of Caracas have adopted the strategy of lining up at markets as early as 5 a.m., even though most of them don’t open until 8.
The situation is worse in places outside the capital city. In San Cristóbal, in the far west of the country, people reportedly get up as early as 3 a.m. to go shopping.
In spite of the long lines, the Venezuelan government doesn’t fully admit that there is a problem.
“If we had no food in Venezuela,” Carlos Osorio, Vice President of Food Security and Sovereignty, stated with perfect Orwellian logic on Saturday during a publicity trip to a supermarket, “we would not have these lines.”
The local press and people on social media have reported altercations that have broken out as a result of the long waits.
According to the Colombian newspaper, El Espectador, the Justice and Interior Minister, Carmen Meléndez, asked Venezuelans to remain calm on Friday.
“I ask you not to despair,” she said. “We have the ability and the products for everyone.”
She added that in Venezuela, “The first days of the year are traditionally a time to conduct inventory, and stores are closed.”
To prevent major problems, members of the Army and the National Bolivarian Police patrol some supermarkets, some of them, like at the Bicentennial Supermarket in the Plaza Venezuela in Caracas, they are heavily armed and wear riot gear.
Rationing began in September when consumers were forced to register their fingerprints at PDVAL stores in order to limit the consumption of 23 basic goods ranging from milk to toilet paper—in order to prevent the resale and smuggling of goods, authorities said.
But since many public supermarkets didn’t get scanning machines, most shops registered identity card numbers instead.
The government has also limited when people can shop for goods. Starting last week, consumers have been able to go to the state-run PDVAL markets only one day a week, as determined by the last number of their identity cards.
And on the chosen day, people can buy two chickens, one package of red meat, two packs of sugar and two of powdered milk.
Pedro Palma, a former president of Venezuelan Academy of Economics, told FNL that re-sale is a real problem.
Public policies that have upset the balance of supply and demand, he said, “have helped create a mass of people who wait on lines in supermarkets to buy scarce products in order to resell them in the informal market, getting two to three times what they paid for them.”
He added, “According to the latest studies, two out of every three people in line is a reseller.”
Ángel Bermúdez is a reporter living in Caracas, Venezuela.