Venezuelans hoarding cornmeal flour.
I had been in Caracas for just a few days in June when a friend called me and excitedly said, “I have good news. They are selling sugar here and each person can buy four kilos. Come quickly with whoever is at home.” It was a 20 minute bus ride away and then we had to wait over an hour in line. But one spurns such opportunities at one’s peril in Venezuela in recent years.
I never had this experience when living in Caracas in the late 1990s, but this is now the norm. When visiting in March, I asked a clearly irritated mother, just leaving a supermarket, how long she and her young son had waited to buy harina pan, the cornmeal flour used to prepare the Venezuelan staple arepa. “Three and a half hours” she snapped. I could only sympathize and decided not to wait in line myself. The shops are now forbidden to sell this most essential product to anyone under 18, as, with its sale being rationed on the rare occasions it can be bought, whole families wait together in line to maximize their purchasing power.
The harina pan and sugar story is the same for toilet paper, milk, coffee — indeed over 25% of all necessary staples are rationed, being rarely available, according to the last scarcity figures published by the central bank in January. Even the government admits that the poverty rate leapt from 21% to 27% last year, mainly because incomes failed to keep up with soaring inflation, now officially over 60%. The economy is set to shrink this year by at least 1% according to even the government’s predictions. Yields on Venezuela’s sovereign debt skyrocketed in the past year, to just under 14%, tops among 50 emerging markets tracked by JPMorgan Chase. The latest hard-to-find item — coffins!