May 18, 2008
Soaring demand for goods and not enough supply makes waiting in line a daily occurrence for most Venezuelans.
CARACAS -- One line spills out of a bank here, another from a nearby restaurant at lunchtime.
Sixteen cars fill a lane for half a block waiting to enter a health clinic parking lot, and another block away 62 people stand in line outside the Spanish Embassy.
''We're used to waiting in lines,'' said María Suárez, who had stood for two hours to apply for Spanish nationality. ``It's routine.''
Living in Venezuela means little instant gratification. Lines, traffic jams and waiting lists from shortages abound, to an extent not seen in neighboring nations. A fast-growing economy fueled by record-high oil prices is partly to blame for the growing lines in Venezuela as consumers with bulging pocketbooks clog supermarkets, banks and restaurants.
Independent economists also blame controls imposed by President Hugo Chávez on prices and on the exchange of dollars, policies that seem to be backfiring to some extent. Voters in December rejected a referendum, sought by Chávez, in good measure because of the worsening conditions of day-to-day life in Venezuela. With Chávez's personal popularity having declined to 50 percent, these same concerns threaten his party's continued control over the country in elections scheduled for November, polls show.
''The heart of Chávez's problems is that people have begun to blame him for the country's problems,'' pollster Luis Vicente León said.
Venezuelans must wait for practically everything.
Among the examples: It takes at least three weeks to get Internet service, people are already buying airline tickets for Christmas travel to guarantee a seat, and Venezuelans have to wait six months before they can seek a visa to visit the United States.
Mark Weisbrot, an economist with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, blames most of the economy's bottlenecks on Venezuela's rapid growth but said the government does not efficiently deliver services.
''People see Venezuela as an authoritarian state,'' Weisbrot said. ``I see it more as an anarchic state. Things don't work very well.''
Chávez imposed the controls on prices and the exchange of dollars in an attempt to limit inflation and ensure a fairer distribution of wealth.
The government limits the price for some 400 goods -- everything from the cost of milk to paying for parking to buying chicken. The government also has set the value of the bolívar, the Venezuelan currency, at 2.15 per $1, but the black-market rate is now about 3.2 bolívares. The gap adds to the economy's distortions, said Orlando Ochoa, a private economist in Caracas.
Another government policy has jacked up demand. Ochoa noted that the government-fixed interest rate of 14 percent for bank deposits means savers would lose ground by keeping money in the bank. Venezuela's inflation rate was 29 percent over the past 12 months -- the highest in Latin America.
Asdrúbal Oliveros, an economist who serves as a consultant for banks and companies, said surging economies normally prompt more investment by private businesses seeking to increase profits. Venezuela's economy has grown by a robust 8 to 10 percent a year over the past four years, a rate that most other Latin American countries can only envy.
But consumer demand is driving the economy as private investment lags.
''Expropriations, socialist rhetoric, verbal attacks against the private sector, land invasions -- this does not stimulate private investment,'' Oliveros said.
Overall production of goods in Venezuela is growing only 8 to 9 percent per year while personal consumption is rising nearly 20 percent annually, said Robert Bottome, publisher of the VenEconomy newsletter. To fill the supply gap, he added, imports are rising 35 to 40 percent per year.
The flood of imports would be even higher but for government controls.
''There are two solutions to high demand,'' said Pavel Gómez, an economics professor in Caracas. ``One is that prices rise. But the government considers that unfair to the poor. The government prefers lines, wait lists, [de facto] rationing and black markets where you pay extra to get goods or services.''
The Chávez administration does not permit banks to offer savings or checking accounts in dollars, or allow the withdrawal of dollars from ATM machines, as do other Latin American countries. So companies get access to dollars to pay for imported goods only with government approval on a case-by-case basis.
Cadivi, the government agency that awards dollars in exchange for bolívares, is taking four to six months to approve requests for access to dollars, economists say.
In one notable case of limiting imports, the government has imposed quotas on the number of foreign-made vehicles that can be sold in Venezuela.
Getting a new car takes up to six months.
At a Ford showroom in Caracas, all six vehicles had a sign stuck in the windshield. ''Vendido,'' it read. They had already been sold.
But even with the shortage of imported automobiles, vehicles already saturate major highways and the streets of Venezuela's biggest cities, especially Caracas and Valencia.
Traffic jams in Caracas start by 6 a.m. on weekdays and last until about 9 p.m., well past rush hour in most Latin American countries.
Jessica González and her father leave their suburban Caracas home at 5 a.m. each day so she can reach work three hours later. The drive without traffic would take 30 minutes.
''I spend so much time in traffic, it doesn't make for great quality of life,'' said González.
She spoke as she was standing in a line at the government's labor ministry. González had arrived at 8 a.m. and expected to spend most of the day waiting to provide a document required every three months showing how many workers her employer had.
Twenty steps away was the end of another line. Here, 29 people were waiting to pay their electric bill to the government-owned utility.
Another 14 people were leading toward another doorway, to pay their telephone bill to the government-owned telecommunications company.
Yet another 98 people were waiting in another line, to sign up for their retirement pension with the Social Security Institute.
Enrique Blanco, newly retired, had been the first one in line, securing his place at 3 a.m. He brought the Spanish translation of an Alfred Hitchcock mystery story, the Grave Business. But Blanco said he made no progress in the book because others kept coming up to him asking if they were in the correct line.
''I've done nothing but wait,'' Blanco said, eight hours after arriving. ``I'm tired.''
Fran Delgado is the rare Venezuelan who likes the lines. Since 2002, Delgado has provided plastic stools for one bolívar (40 cents at the official exchange rate) to people applying for a passport.
He normally earns 70 to 80 Bolívares per day, up from 30 to 40 Bolívares when he sold orange juice on a street corner.
''It's a good business,'' Delgado said.
Even those with no say in the matter have to wait.
Some 60 to 100 bodies are typically sent to the Caracas morgue on weekends, said Alejandra Morales, a university researcher, principally from gunshot wounds. Caracas is one of the most violent cities in Latin America.
''The morgue is overwhelmed,'' she said. ``Bodies have to wait, too".