CARACAS, Venezuela — Mireya Bustamante spent most of the day trying in vain to find flour to bake a birthday cake for her 4-year-old son.
Like most Venezuelans, the single, 33-year-old office worker has periodically struggled with such food shortages for years, and, like many in the country, thinks they’re getting worse. She blames price and currency controls imposed by the government, though authorities contend unscrupulous business owners are at fault.
“An odyssey that never seems to end” was how Bustamante described the everyday challenge of finding basic foodstuffs.
“What good are the controls if it becomes so difficult to find basic products?” asked the mother of three. “It’s the government’s fault, not the owners of neighborhood grocery stores.”
Venezuelans have long had to shop around to find scarce foods, and lately consumers have had particular trouble finding staples such as chicken, cooking oil, sugar and coffee, as well as toilet paper and some medicines. The shortages are a potential political vulnerability for the government while President Hugo Chavez remains in a Cuban hospital, unheard from more than a month after his fourth cancer-related operation.
Such economic questions about his socialist model are adding to the political uncertainty sparked by Chavez’s illness and long absence. However, there have been no signs so far that the political crisis is aggravating the economic one.
Chavez’s government has sold cheap, subsidized staples at state-run markets for years to reinforce support among the poor. It says price controls, established in 2003, are essential to protect consumers by countering inflation while government-established exchange rates for foreign currencies are needed to prevent capital flight. Those currencies, chiefly the U.S. dollar, enter the country as payment for Venezuelan oil.
But many economists counter that government mismanagement of the economy through the price and currency controls are in fact making people’s lives harder by making it more difficult to find goods. Critics also argue that official accusations of hoarding and price speculation aim to deflect blame for failed policies.
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