If urban traffic jams and bustling restaurants are symptom of prosperity, long lines outside shops indicate a distorted, depressed economy. This is the current face of Venezuela's capital.
CARACAS— This is not a city of traffic jams, but of queues. Until recently, residents of the Venezuelan capital, your average car-congested megalopolis, understood "queue" to mean "car queue" — as in, a line of vehicles moving slowly because of traffic gridlock. Now they also understand them to mean long lines of people, usually outside shops and pharmacies. These are the queues that everyone in Caracas is talking about now.
These queues can emerge on any street corner, and people aren't always sure why they join them. It's to buy something, anything. Some fear that something — anything — could run out, while others spot a queue and see a business opportunity.
Venezuelans of all political colors are irate with queues by now, whether they explain them as being the result of hoarding, shortages, speculation or corruption, and regardless of who they blame, either the government or the opposition and its "economic war" and "psychological manipulation." They can all agree that it's not normal to have to queue for toilet paper in a country sitting atop a sea of crude oil.
In state supermarkets where products are subsidized, authorities sought to regulate these lines, sometimes hundreds of people long, with a kind of "alternate" system. Your shopping days would thus depend on your ID number. State officials have also denounced "compulsive buying" and told people about "rational" consumption. That is: Buy what you need, preferably fruit and vegetables of which there is no shortage. There are also queues outside private supermarkets, of different lengths, depending on the day.
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Empty store shelves in a Venezuelan store. — Photo: ZiaLater
Some shops have chicken on days when it is rumored there is none to be had anywhere else in the capital. Or people may have to line up for soap outside drugstores, when there is no queue inside if you want toothpaste, which fills the shelves...! And nobody, except maybe a tourist, dares to ask for aspirin, which has been unavailable for some time now.
Yet the majority of restaurants are full of customers and have rich and varied menus. Shopping centers are not as well stocked as in Bogota, in neighboring Colombia, but they're not exactly deserted either. And what's not lacking is money, and therein lie the greatest distortions in the Venezuelan economy. There are widely varying exchange rates for the dollar, which can cost between 6.3 (at the official rate) and 180 bolivars. And the annual inflation rate exceeds 60%.
At the end of the day, what's most notable are not so much the queues formed with utmost patience by most Venezuelans, but the craziness provoked by attempts to fix the price of a good or service. And this in an economy that has become inherently corrupting and pushes most people to live by any means they can, even through queuing.