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Shortages, inflation and long lines have Venezuelans grumbling

Venezuelans express exasperation after President Maduro's national address offers no solutions to inflation

Waiting in line for hours to buy groceries at a supermarket in eastern Caracas, Helena Siso didn’t know or care who was to blame for the acute shortages of consumer goods plaguing Venezuela. She just wanted the government to do something about it.

“This is very frustrating,” said Siso, a 54-year-old doctor’s secretary. “Here I am on my lunch hour and I have to spend three hours in line to buy toilet paper. Tomorrow, I’ll have to come back to get corn flour. I don’t want the government to give me anything, just save me from submitting to these lines and this desperation.”

Siso’s comments were typical of the exasperation many Venezuelans’ expressed after President Nicolas Maduro’s state of the nation address this week in which he defended the socialist model of government but offered no immediate solutions for the country’s deepening economic crisis.

In addition to shortages that have consumers waiting in long lines for sugar, cooking oil, soaps, rice and other items, Venezuela is also in the grips of a sputtering economy and rising inflation that last year averaged 63%, the highest rate in Latin America.

Times are likely to get even tougher this year. After the economy shrank by 3% in 2014, the International Monetary Fund issued a forecast on Wednesday saying the total Venezuelan output of goods and services will shrink by a further 7% this year.

Although the economy here has been in disarray for several years, the main reason the IMF cited for the poor 2015 outlook is the 50% drop in the price of Venezuelan oil, on which the country depends for 95% of all export sales.

As he waited in line at a supermarket in the Mercedes barrio in eastern Caracas, construction worker Ramon Diaz said what bothered him was that many subsidized goods such as milk meant to be available at the government chain of grocery stories end up in the hands of black market sellers who charge three times the official prices.

“The government has to stop that,” said Diaz, 45. “As long as the contraband continues, there is no solution, and we will have to continue standing in line.”

The lines are not only growing longer but more violent, a sign of rising frustration, Siso said. She avoids shopping in the Valles del Tuy barrio where she lives because the “law of the jungle” is what prevails there. “Those who push, shove and punch take everything and leave nothing for the rest of us.”

Among the few defenders of the government encountered in Thursday’s lines was Jose Delgado, a 42-year-old shopping center janitor, who blamed scarcities on hoarding wholesalers. Delgado is among the still considerable supporters of the late Hugo Chavez who said tougher times have not turned them against Maduro, Chavez' successor.

“I am with my comandante,” Delgado said, referring to Maduro. “The people in these lines buy more than they need and so that’s why everything runs out so fast.”

In his televised speech before the National Assembly on Wednesday night, Maduro defended the socialist system, saying it “guarantees the just distribution of Venezuela’s wealth” and enables the country to confront the “assaults of economic warfare that reappeared in the second half of 2014.”

Maduro has repeatedly blamed the United States for his country’s economic woes, saying that the rise of U.S. shale oil production and its effects on world oil prices is a tactic designed to destabilize Venezuela.

Zulay Gutierrez, a 30-year-old hotel concierge, who was interviewed as she stood in line to buy disposable diapers at a drug store in the Candelaria section of eastern Caracas, said the blame lies closer to home.

“It’s the government’s fault,” Gutierrez said. “There are scarcities in everything, especially in children’s things, like milk, vitamins, shampoo and diapers. There is no soap to wash dishes or clothes. When there is chicken or meat to buy, you have to fight your way through the line to buy it.”

Maduro on Wednesday said that the time had come to raise the heavily subsidized price of gasoline, which now sells for 4 cents a gallon at the official exchange rate, but he did not say when or by how much fuel prices would rise. He assigned management of the gas price issue to Vice President Jorge Arreaza.

“Venezuelan gasoline has a price that doesn’t cover anything. It’s a distortion,” Maduro said. He also announced a 15% hike in the minimum wage effective next month and an increase in scholarships for high school and college students. Reaction to the wage hike was tepid: Shoppers said it wouldn’t be enough to compensate for galloping inflation.

But those details were far from the mind of motorcycle messenger Carlos Frias, as he stood in line at a Farmatodo drug store in the Santa Fe shopping center. “This is how I live every day, standing in line for milk and diapers. The country’s broke, and we are seeing the consequences.”

Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported respectively from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia.

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