- Consumers often go home empty handed because of food shortages
- Inflation soared to 27.6 percent in November
- The government caps the prices of as many as 15,000 products
- Venezuela, a major producer of oil and minerals, is not a poor country
During a recent visit to Guaicaipuro, a traditional market in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, a fresh meat refrigerator sat empty at a grocery. Many consumers looking for beef, poultry or fish had to go home empty-handed.
The produce section looked well stocked with plenty of fruits and vegetables. But consumers shopping at Guaicaipuro complained that prices, even for basic products, had skyrocketed.
Alba Varela, a housewife and resident of Caracas, went to the market looking for cornmeal to prepare hallacas, a traditional Venezuelan dish, especially this time of the year.
"It's fundamental, because other than pork it's the main dish for us during December," Varela said. "It seems there's a shortage."
Maria de Abreu, another Caracas resident doing her grocery shopping, complained that she couldn't find powdered milk. "It's regulated and you can only get a can per person. And so what people do is that they bring along a friend and another and yet another and that's how they get enough for their family," de Abreu said.
There's also a shortage of coffee. As soon as new supplies arrive, shoppers say, they have to run to the store to get some because it runs out very quickly.
Venezuela has the highest annual inflation in Latin America. It soared to 27.6 percent in November. In an effort to curb this inflation, the government set price caps on as many as 15,000 goods in late November. The price of 18 products, including toothpaste, soap and diapers, which are considered "basic," was immediately frozen.
Consuelo Cerrada is in charge of the government agency that advocated for consumers. She says they're doing everything possible to improve the situation. "The Bolivarian government is working in coordination with all of the agencies responsible for food distribution to guarantee that there will be food available," Cerrada said recently in an interview for Venezuelan state television. Bolivarian is a reference to the country's official name, The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Venezuelan authorities blame the shortages on some producers who have allegedly hoarded regulated products. According to officials, in a raid conducted in November, they found more than 200 tons of powdered milk hidden in a warehouse.
President Hugo Chavez says this is an example of what his government has to deal with and places the blame on what he calls "speculators and hoarders."
"We have to get to the bottom of this. This is not about half measures or quick fixes. We have to apply the Constitution to the root, the way it should be done," Chavez said, reacting to the case of the hidden powdered milk.
Venezuela is not a poor country. It's the thirteenth largest producer of oil in the world and an important producer of minerals. But Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center in Atlanta says the country is paying for the centralization of the government and a socialist agenda pushed by President Chavez.
"His goal that he has stated is to deepen the revolution, to deepen and expand socialism and to show, I think, the country his vision of his socialist experiment," McCoy said.
Jorge Roig, vice president of Fedecamaras, a Venezuelan association that pulls together businesses, including many producers of basic goods, blames the new government price caps and regulations for the shortages.
"People are doing panic buying. With these price caps, people are buying more than they need because they know many factories are not going to be able to produce their products. Production has gone down because there are price caps, production is not cost-effective and we have these conditions that discourage investment," Roig said.
It's not just ordinary people who are worried about the situation. Under government guidelines published last month, producers of basic products, including foreign companies, must now register with government regulators and disclose how they produce, distribute and market their products, a move that has caused great concern among domestic and international companies operating in Venezuela.