Battling food shortages, the government is rolling out a new ID system that is either a grocery loyalty card with extra muscle or the most dramatic step yet toward rationing in Venezuela, depending on who is describing it.
President Nicólas Maduro's administration says the cards to track families' purchases will foil people who stock up on groceries at subsidized prices and then illegally resell them for several times the amount. Critics say it's another sign the oil-rich Venezuelan economy is headed toward Cuba-style dysfunction.
Registration begins at more than 100 government-run supermarkets across the country Tuesday, and working-class shoppers who sometimes endure hours-long lines at government-run stores to buy groceries at steeply reduced prices are welcoming the plan.
"The rich people have things all hoarded away, and they pull the strings," said Juan Rodríguez, who waited two hours to enter the government-run Abastos Bicentenario supermarket near downtown Caracas on Monday, and then waited another three hours to check out.
Rigid currency controls and a shortage of U.S. dollars make it increasingly difficult for Venezuelans to find imported basic products like milk, flour, toilet paper and cooking oil. Price controls don't help either, with producers complaining that some goods are priced too low to make a profit and justify production.
As of January, more than a quarter of basic staples were out of stock in Venezuelan stores, according to the central bank's scarcity index. The shortages are among the problems cited by Maduro's opponents who have been staging protests since mid-February.
Checkout workers at Abastos Bicentenario were taking down customers' cellphone numbers Monday, to ensure they couldn't return for eight days. Shoppers said employees also banned purchases by minors, to stop parents from using their children to engage in hoarding, which the government calls "nervous buying."
Rodríguez supports both measures.
"People who go shopping every day hurt us all," he said, drawing approving nods from the friends he made over the course of his afternoon slowly snaking through the aisles with his oversized cart.
Reflecting Maduro's increasingly militarized discourse against opponents he accuses of waging "economic war," the government is calling the new program the "system of secure supply."
Patrons will register with their fingerprints, and the new ID card will be linked to a computer system that monitors purchases. Food Minister Félix Osorio says it will sound an alarm when it detects suspicious purchasing patterns, barring people from buying the same goods every day. But he also says the cards will be voluntary, with incentives like discounts and entry into raffles for homes and cars.
Expressionless men with rifles patrolled the warehouse-size supermarket Monday as shoppers hurried by, focusing on grabbing meat and pantry items before they were gone. Long shelves that should have been heaped with rice and coffee instead displayed six brands of ketchup. There was plenty of frozen beef selling for 22.64 bolivars a kilogram — $3.59 at the official exchange rate, or 32 cents at the black market rate increasingly used in pricing goods.
A local consumer watchdog, the National User and Consumer Alliance, invokes the specter of Cuba's struggling economy and calls the ID program rationing by another name. It predicts all Venezuelans without cards will soon be barred from shopping at state supermarkets.
After five decades of rationing basic goods for Cubans, President Raúl Castro's communist government is phasing out subsidized foodstuffs as it opens the island's economy to private enterprise. Cubans most dependent on the rationed goods say that in recent years their monthly quotas provided only enough food for a couple of weeks.
Until now, Venezuela's restrictions on purchases have been toughest in its cities on the border with Colombia. Venezuelans can make a killing by buying goods at below-market prices and smuggling them into Colombia for sale at much higher prices.
Defenders of Venezuela's socialist government say price controls imposed by the late President Hugo Chávez help poor people lead more dignified lives, and the United Nations has recognized Venezuela's success in eradicating hunger.
So complaints aren't heard in the long lines at government supermarkets. One young mother shielded her eyes against the afternoon sun as she approached a cashier with sugar, flour and Frosted Flakes cereal. She arrived at 10 a.m., but didn't blame the government or its opponents for the long wait.
"I don't know if it's worth it, but when my children are crying what else can you do," said the woman, who declined to provide her name as an armed National Guardsmen watched her at the checkout line.
She planned another five-hour run to another supermarket Tuesday to get everything the downtown store was out of.