New York Times
April 4, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, April 3 — Many Venezuelans shrug off President Hugo Chávez’s increasingly frequent calls to create a New Man through a Socialist revolution. But a decree severely limiting alcohol sales for much of Holy Week has certainly gotten their attention.
“Don’t Mess With My Hooch!” read the main headline in Sunday’s El Nuevo País, an opposition newspaper.
That was one of the more restrained comments heard on this city’s streets after the surprise decree, which Mr. Chávez’s government says is needed to diminish fatalities from drunken driving, went into effect on Friday.
There were protests over the weekend on Margarita Island, where revelers and liquor store owners painted car windshields with the words No to the Dry Law. Consecomercio, a national group of business owners, complained that the measure could lower liquor sales by 60 percent during the important vacation period.
But there were also indications that resourceful Caraqueños, as the city’s residents are called, were finding ways around the restrictions. The rollicking reactions to the alcohol ban stand in sharp contrast to the quietude that has greeted Venezuela’s latest corruption scandals: attempts by Supreme Court justices to avoid paying income taxes on generous bonuses and claims that government officials illegally siphoned off millions of dollars from state infrastructure deals with Iran.
“I’ve been in this country 40 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen this,” said Antonio Gouveia, 54, a Portuguese immigrant who owns a bar here where patrons follow horse racing. “Holy Week is the best week of the year because people don’t work, they go out and spend.” Mr. Gouveia described the alcohol decree as “something for madmen.”
Indeed, Mr. Chávez, a teetotaler, appears to have touched a nerve with the ban on alcohol sales, which initially confused many people and caught them off guard. Mr. Chávez’s sometimes wacky pronouncements on politics and the direction of what he describes as a “Bolivarian revolution” are generally taken in stride, but policies that immediately affect the rituals of daily life are another matter.
The measure prohibits the sale of alcohol altogether along highways and busy streets until after Easter. That may sound unobjectionable, but legions of street vendors here earn money by selling cold beer to drivers advancing at a snail’s pace on traffic-congested roadways.
Authorities also banned liquor sales on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, while on Saturday bars, restaurants and liquor stores can sell alcohol from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Until Thursday, alcohol can be sold only from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Venezuela, which is enjoying an economic boom fueled by high oil prices, is one of the world’s most coveted markets for products like beer and whiskey.
The country led Latin America in per capita consumption of beer in 2005, at 83.3 liters, even slightly surpassing consumption levels in the United States, according to the research firm Euromonitor International. (The Czech Republic topped the list, with per capita consumption of 160.5 liters.)
This is not the first time Mr. Chávez, 52, has tried to focus Venezuelans on recreational activities that do not revolve around drinking.
Ahead of last year’s presidential election in December, Mr. Chávez called beer trucks a “degeneration of society” and ordered the National Guard to prevent them from selling beer on the streets of poor neighborhoods. He also recently imposed a 35 percent duty on imported whiskey, a favorite lunchtime drink of many Venezuelans.
Complaints over the latest anti-alcohol campaign have been greeted with disdain by senior officials charged with carrying out the decree. Almost 100 people died in car accidents during Holy Week last year, while more than 20 drowned, with many of the incidents alcohol-related, according to officials. Traffic accidents declined 17 percent from last year in the first 72 hours of the holiday, the authorities said.
“Life is worth more than capitalist interests,” Pedro Carreño, the interior minister, told reporters.
Still, reports that some liquor stores experienced frenzied buying last week by shoppers stocking up ahead of Holy Week gave way to signs that the measure was being loosely enforced in Caracas. While most bars in affluent areas of the city’s eastern neighborhoods shut down this week, other downtown bars and liquor stores remained open.
And with a wink and a nod, some restaurateurs were circumventing the ban by pouring wine into coffee cups. Beer, too, could be consumed in some establishments, albeit discreetly in plastic mugs. Some Caraqueños also told of a vibrant trade in illicit liquor sales in the city’s slums after 5 p.m.
“I drank with some friends in the neighborhood last night,” said Benigno Suero, a manager at an outdoor cafe. Mr. Suero, who lives in Petare, a sprawling slum on the city’s eastern edge where beer is commonly consumed on the street, said with a smile, “We drank three crates.”
José Orozco contributed reporting.