After working all week at a local call center, Antonio Rodriguez arrived at his neighborhood supermarket at daybreak Sunday. He wanted to be among the first in line so he’d have a shot at buying scarce food items, disposable diapers and soap.
He would rather have been home, spending time with his year-old son and pregnant wife. But these days in Venezuela, people have to line up for the bare necessities.
The store in south Caracas, part of a state-owned chain called Bicentenario, outwardly resembled a U.S. supermarket — except that the door was crisscrossed with iron bars, and the entryway was guarded by a platoon of helmeted police dressed in riot gear and armed with automatic rifles.
Inside, it’s a gamble. One day, there might be cooking oil and corn flour; the next, nothing but pasta and canned tuna.
Despite its vast oil wealth, Venezuela has run out of cash. A two-year decline in global oil prices has played a big part, but critics also blame economic policies that emphasized social welfare programs and oil subsidies to Cuba and other countries over investment. Basic household items must be imported because the country no longer produces them.
“Prices are going up every day,” said Rodriguez, 35, as he waited his turn. About 300 people of all ages and social classes were in line with him, many with their arms folded, some shaking their heads impatiently. The line stretched three blocks through Plaza Venezuela, a government office hub.
“Even if there are things left on the shelves, sometime I can’t afford them. That’s why my daily diet is limited to eggs and pasta. Chicken, beef, fish and cheese are out of my reach,” Rodriguez said.
His salary is $35 per month, calculated using black market rates to which many food prices are tied. That isn’t enough for the luxury of meat that costs $5 a pound. Inflation, which could reach 270% this year, means prices are constantly galloping past his purchasing power.
For the most part, the people in Rodriguez’s line were well-behaved. But that isn’t always the case, especially as the day wears on. On Tuesday, in the northwestern city of Barquisimeto, violence broke out and people in line exchanged gunfire. A 26-year-old mother of two, Yoselin Perez, was caught in the crossfire and died of her wounds.
As much as Rodriguez feels frustrated by the government of President Nicolas Maduro, he said he’s afraid to join street protests that on Friday prompted Maduro to declare a state of emergency.
“All of us Venezuelans know what happens to protesters,” he said. “They are repressed.”
The anger and impotence Rodriguez feels toward what he described as an incompetent government help explain the sense of desperation that many Venezuelans feel as they grapple with triple-digit inflation, scarcities of basic household items and frequent electricity blackouts.
We’re in a situation that is very difficult to overcome because we are lacking two essential things: food and medicine.
“I can’t find any pills for my high blood pressure and I’m worried I will have a heart attack,” said Josefina Paredes, a retired Education Ministry employee. “We’re in a situation that is very difficult to overcome because we are lacking two essential things: food and medicine.”
Patience is running out in parts of Venezuela as social media and local news outlets report increasing incidents of looting. Stores in the northern Venezuelan city of Maracay and in Caracas’ La Florida suburb were reportedly broken into and cleaned out by mobs last week.
This month, Ramon Muchacho, the mayor of the middle-class Caracas borough of Chacao said on Twitter that people were hunting “dogs and cats in the streets and pigeons in the plazas to eat them” because of food scarcities and the high cost of living.
The mayor, who is a Maduro opponent, made the comment while noting that six Venezuelan soldiers had been caught with half a dozen dead goats that they had stolen from a ranch because there wasn’t enough food in their barracks of Ft. Manaure, an army base in western Venezuela’s Lara state.
Dissatisfaction with the Maduro government is at the root of a recall movement that last month quickly collected 1.8 million signatures in favor of a referendum. When the opposition-controlled National Assembly took power in January, leader Henry Ramos Allup said Maduro would be gone in six months.
The discontent is rooted in the decline in Venezuela’s quality of life and in an economy in which workers such as Rodriguez don’t make enough money to pay for everyday necessities. It was a measure of that dissatisfaction when the right-of-center opposition took control of the National Assembly in January, ending 17 years of hegemony by socialist deputies.
Maduro is struggling to keep the country from swerving to the right as other Latin American nations have done in recent years, but polls suggest that most Venezuelans believe he is in over his head.
Opposition lawmakers say the National Electoral Council is dragging its feet in processing the signatures for the referendum, and employing delaying tactics. Thousands turned out Thursday for a peaceful protest march to the council. Soldiers blocked the marchers’ route in central Caracas.
“There will be no referendum in Venezuela,” said Caracas Mayor and Maduro ally Jorge Rodriguez on Saturday, asserting that there had been irregularities in the gathering of signatures. The electoral commission has yet to complete its review.
Opposition figures claim there is an orchestrated campaign by Maduro forces to undercut the assembly’s authority in violation of the separation of powers guaranteed by the constitution. About a dozen new laws approved by the congress since January either have been nullified by the Supreme Court or simply ignored by Maduro.
Among the laws nullified by the Supreme Court, whose judges are mostly Maduro supporters, was one that would have amended the constitution to shorten Maduro’s term from six to four years. The former bus driver took office in April 2013, a month after the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
Another unheeded law was an amnesty bill that ordered the release of dozens of political prisoners, including former opposition Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed two years ago on what he and his supporters say were trumped-up incitement to violence charges.
The 53-year-old president, whose approval ratings are hovering around 15%, issued the decree after U.S. intelligence officials in Washington told reporters that Venezuela was in danger of collapsing and descending into chaotic violence.
Maduro frequently blames Venezuela’s problems on Washington for waging what he calls “economic war.” But 70% of Venezuelans think he is at fault for mismanaging the economy, and want him out of office, according to recent polls.
Maduro on Friday also announced that military maneuvers would be held next weekend and that the government might take over unidentified factories to supply the goods that are conspicuously absent from store shelves. Last month, the country’s biggest brewer, Polar, said it could no longer make beer because of the lack of supplies.
Venezuelan Jacinto Luna, a 49-year-old mechanic in Coro, in northwestern Venezuela, said he is reaching the end of his rope. His gripes center on electricity rationing that force most big cities to go without power for several hours a day. Maduro blames El Niño for low water levels at hydropower plants, while critics say he hasn’t built the backup thermoelectric generation plants he should have.
“Our daily work rhythm has totally changed. Much of the day we spend in the street looking for shade to keep cool because the air conditioning won’t go on,” Luna said of his shop. “Then it’s night, it’s 100 degrees and we can’t sleep.”
Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.
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