AMONG all the other daily tribulations Venezuelans face, they now have to cope with a shortage of one of life’s most basic necessities – toilet paper.
President Nicolas Maduro’s embattled socialist government this week pledged to import 50 million rolls, accusing opponents of causing the crisis.
That was little comfort to consumers struggling to find toilet paper on Wednesday in the capital, Caracas. “This is the last straw,” said Manuel Fagundes, a shopper hunting for tissue. “I’m 71 and this is the first time I’ve seen this.”
Economists say Venezuela’s shortages stem from the price controls meant to make basic goods available to the poorest and government controls of foreign currency. “State-controlled prices – set below market-clearing price – always result in shortages. It will only get worse, as it did in the Soviet Union,” said Steve Hanke, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University in America.
President Maduro, selected by the dying Hugo Chávez to carry on his “Bolivarian revolution,” claims anti-government forces are causing shortages in a bid to destabilise the country, and his rule. The government this week also announced it would import 760,000 tons of food.
Commerce minister Alejandro Fleming blamed the shortage on “excessive demand” built up as a result of “a media campaign generated to disrupt the country.”
“The revolution will bring 50 million rolls of toilet paper,” he said. “We are going to saturate the market so that our people calm down.”
Finance minister Nelson Merentes said the government was also addressing the lack of foreign currency, which has resulted in the suspension of foreign supplies of raw materials, equipment and spare parts.
“We are making progress …we have to work very hard,” Mr Merentes said.
Many factories operate at half capacity as the currency controls make it hard for them to pay for imported parts and materials. Business leaders say some companies verge on bankruptcy because they cannot extend lines of credit with foreign suppliers.
Mr Chávez imposed currency controls a decade ago to stem capital flight as his government expropriated land and businesses. Anointed by Mr Chávez as his successor before the president died from cancer, Mr Maduro narrowly beat rival Henrique Capriles, who refused to accept the 14 April result, claiming fraud and intimidation. He filed a complaint to the Supreme Court, asking for the vote to be annulled, though that is unlikely since the court is packed with pro-government judges.
Patience is wearing thin among consumers who face shortages and queues at supermarkets and chemists. Last month, Venezuela’s scarcity index reached its highest since 2009, while the annual inflation rate rose to nearly 30 per cent. Shoppers often spend several days looking for basic items, and stock up when they find them.
Mr Fleming said normally 125 million rolls of toilet paper were sold each month, but current demand “leads us to think 40 million more are required”.