CARACAS (AFP) – It may have oil galore, but Venezuela also boasts an economy so gutted by inflation and shortages that for many people shopping is a second job.
Venezuelans make daily treks to automated bank teller machines as runaway price hikes gnaw away at their purchasing power.
Shortages abound of such basics as milk, soap, diapers and toilet paper. Stores open late or close early because they run out of stuff to sell.
Way before dawn, lines form outside department stores. Bartering is back. Social media serve as heads-up sentinels to report which shop has what.
And for many Venezuelans, free time is no longer so free.
A survey by pollster Datanalisis found that they spend on average eight hours a week – equivalent to a work day – simply running around to stores trying to buy the essentials of everyday life, many of which Venezuela imports.
Just listen to Carlos Jones, a 50-year-old electrician waiting in line to buy detergent. He often shops before he goes to work, during his lunch break and after his shift ends.
“Today I have been to three stores. In one I got deodorant and in another, soap. Yesterday I spent three hours in line and when it came my turn, they were out of what I wanted,” Jones told AFP.
What is wrong with this picture?
In part, the problem is the sharp decline in oil prices. That stings in Venezuela, which gets 96 per cent of its foreign currency from oil, of which it has the world’s largest proven reserves.
What is more, the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro – heir to the late firebrand Hugo Chavez – maintains strict currency controls, making it hard for importers to get the dollars they need to bring in everything from cars to medicine.
Fewer dollars floating around puts pressure on the black market exchange rate for the local currency, the bolivar.
And as importers have trouble buying dollars at the cheap, official, government-set rate of 6.3 bolivars to the dollar, they often turn to the black market to get greenbacks.
There, a dollar is 30 times more expensive. And of course, that cost is passed on to consumers.
For months last year, the government simply stopped publishing inflation figures. In late December, it finally reported that the rate for the 12 months to November 2014 topped 63 per cent – one of the highest in the world. The economy is also in recession, it added.
So, it’s a mess out there. Maduro travelled to China this week in search of investment to boost the economy. He said in Beijing that he got pledges for $20 billion.
Mauricio Tancredi, chairman of Consecomercio, a chamber of commerce, said he was worried about the drop in Venezuelans’ quality of life. Indeed, fury over shortages, crime and inflation triggered riots last year that left 43 people dead.
“We have never seen so many businesses closing early or opening late because they have no merchandise to sell,” Tancredi told a local radio station.
Several restaurant owners told AFP they have employees whose only job is to scurry around to supermarkets and shops buying food for the eateries to cook and serve.