'We can't go on like this': Shortages, economic crisis make Venezuela a nation of lines

In an impoverished hilltop neighborhood, a dense labyrinth of narrow alleys, mostly shuttered shops and cinder-block homes, residents trudge toward a protruding pipe discharging a trickle of murky water.

Someone has switched on a pump to start the uphill flow to the area, where power blackouts and low pressure make running water a luxury.

People soon gather lugging their plastic pails and jugs. The source is irregular, the quality substandard, and yet the residents here in this northern stretch of Caracas’ gritty Petare district still line up for the dubious privilege. 

“Lines, lines, lines,” lamented Anjelica Aguilera, 29, who waited for her pail to fill from the dripping pipe. She was among a dozen or so waiting. “We are all sick of lines!”

Venezuela’s financial crisis has transformed this sprawling capital into a city of lines, where multitudes face the regular indignity of queuing up for basics — from pasta to toilet paper, rice to bank notes.

The lengthy, dehumanizing lines — a fact of life throughout the country — represent the most dramatic illustration of the human toll of Venezuela’s unforgiving economic breakdown.

Each morning before dawn, legions of the city’s humblest inhabitants venture forth to brave the lines, unsure if their quest will even yield what they need.

“I left my home at 1 a.m., walking down through the barrio and taking two minibuses,” said Estela Martinez, 41, a mother of four who was found in a multi-block-long line outside the Plansuarez   supermarket in La Trinidad district of east Caracas. “At this point, I doubt anything will be left. But what choice do I have?”

The trip by public transport from her home in Manicomio, far to the west, had eaten up two hours. It was almost 2 p.m., more than 12 hours after she began her expedition. At least 50 people were still ahead of her.

Many Venezuelans trapped in lines these days come from poor, crime-ridden districts and travel vast distances to better-stocked markets in safer areas, a sensible precaution in a nation with a homicide rate among the highest in the world.

One of the planet’s great oil producers is now unable to pay for basic commodities, like milk, flour and rice, which are mostly imported, triggering the severe shortages. Inflation next year is projected to hit 1,200%.

With the country’s largest-denomination note, the 100-bolivar bill, now worth about 10 U.S. cents on the free market, many Venezuelans must make daily trips to the bank just to have some carrying cash. The predictable result: prolonged lines at ATMs.

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For the record

8:43 a.m.: An earlier version of this story said the 100-bolivar bill was worth about 1 U.S. cent. It is worth about 10 cents on the free market.

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Tortuous lines have been commonplace for a year or so, following the collapse in oil prices that helped trigger Venezuela’s economic free-fall.

But there is widespread consensus among scores interviewed that the lines are getting longer and that essential products more scarce, further testing Venezuelans’ collective patience.

“We need a change. We can’t go on like this,” said Andres Salazar, 58, a construction worker who had been in line since 5 a.m. outside a supermarket, and still hadn’t made it inside more than seven hours later. 

“How long can we take this?” asked a glum Salazar, who used his day off to purchase some basic goods.

The shortages have eroded support for the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro, whose party lost control of the national legislature in December elections.

 Lines are not a problem at  gas stations, where motorists fill their tanks with subsidized fuel for the equivalent of less than 1 U.S. dollar, among the cheapest prices in the world, despite recent hikes.

The poor and working classes, backbone of support for the late President Hugo Chavez, are suffering most. Well-off Venezuelans with access to U.S. dollars can afford free-market prices charged by unregulated small shops or rampant black-marketers known as bachaqueros.

But with the minimum wage at the equivalent of about $30 a month, most residents have no choice but to brave the lines in the hope of purchasing foodstuffs and other essentials at government-controlled prices.

National guardsmen, rifles slung on their shoulders, and police are often deployed to prevent violence or incidents of line-jumping. Authorities limit purchases of basic items — nearly 4.5 pounds of pasta or rice per customer for instance — in a bid to restrict hoarding.

People are assigned certain days to shop based on the numbers on their government-issued IDs.

Rampant corruption in the scattered distribution network means price-controlled items are rerouted to the black market or purchased by bachaqueros, who resell them at marked-up prices.

In general, frazzled Venezuelans have shown extraordinary patience with the relentless, soul-sapping lines. Reports of instances of looting have been relatively few.

People seem to behave in orderly, disciplined fashion and respect the order of the lines, despite their profound frustrations. The government is well aware that the phenomenon has the potential to trigger explosive social unrest. Street sales of abundant and cheap mangoes and other tropical fruits have helped supplement strained diets.

Venezuelans regularly structure their day around la cola, the line. 

A recent visit to a cavernous, state-owned Bicentenario store revealed a peculiar jumble of goods: Ample supplies of cleaning fluids and laundry liquids imported from China and Spain — but hardly any food, beyond crates of tinned sardines and canned tomatoes, plus some bins of moldy potatoes and onions.

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The fresh meat and seafood sections were shuttered.

Images of Chavez, who led a nationalization push of private enterprises, adorned the store’s walls along with slogans such as, “An achievement of the revolution!” — an unintentionally mocking motto considering the rows of bare shelves below.

Many Venezuelans interviewed expressed a preference for generally better stocked private supermarkets. The lines were just as imposing as at government-owned shops, residents said, but there was a better chance of finding goods.

Outside the shops, a sense of despair looms over the snaking lines.

At midday, when most big commercial centers begin daily business — opening time has been pushed to noon in one of many electricity-saving moves — lines have inevitably already formed outside. Rumors circulate about what is available where.

Mostly, the lines are filled with women, many of them single mothers. There is no preferential queue for the aged, the pregnant, women with children — all must endure an often blazing tropical sun and occasional showers. And there are no guarantees.

“We don’t know what we are going to find here,” said Maigualida Perez, 30, a frail mother of four who brought along her 1-year-old son, Heiber, on a recent shopping jaunt because there was no one to care for him at home.

She and her sister-in-law, Nairobi Siso, 32, departed their home in a notoriously dangerous southern Caracas district known as Cementerio (Cemetery) at 5 a.m. en route to Automercado Plaza’s,  a market in eastern Caracas.

It was their second queue of the day. Before the Automercado, the women lined up at a nearby 24-hour pharmacy, Farmatodo, to purchase a package of 32 diapers at the controlled price of 144 bolivars — about 15 U.S. cents at the unofficial exchange rate. The diapers would have cost at least 10 times more on the black market.

To buy the diapers, Perez had to produce her son’s birth certificate, a government anti-hoarding requirement enforced at stores.

“I live day to day, and it’s hardly enough,” said Siso. “We can’t afford meat or chicken anymore.”

Her 15-year-old son has helped her prepare flasks of coffee to hawk to others in line,  but she wasn’t selling today. She’s noticed that a lack of sugar has cut down on sales.

Inside the supermarket, eager shoppers quickly scooped up what was left. Disappointment was evident in the face of Andreina Escalante, 23, a street vendor of candy and mother of three who had come from her home in rural La Guaira, an hour and a half away by bus.

She’s been forced to feed her 8-month-old infant a homemade formula based on cooked pumpkin. “I can’t find diapers, milk or sugar,” said an exasperated Escalante.

She had waited in line more than five hours. She would try again on another day, in another line.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcdneville

Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to this report.

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