CARACAS May 22 A Venezuelan supermarket puts a
stack of toilet paper on its shop floor, and desperate consumers
snatch it up within five minutes. A woman's voice over the
loudspeaker reminds shoppers each person can only buy four
Few seemed convinced by the government's promise just days
earlier that the oil-rich South American nation would promptly
import 50 million rolls.
"It's a sad moment when a rich country like Venezuela
reaches this situation," said Yenny Caballero, waiting at a
check-out line at a store in an upscale part of the capital.
"These are basic products that everyone should be able to buy."
The scramble for toilet paper has become the most
distressing example of nagging shortages of everything from meat
and chicken to flour and cooking oil in this oil-rich South
With shortages now affecting close to 20 percent of basic
consumer goods, socialist president Nicolas Maduro has agreed to
work with Venezuelan business leaders that government for a
decade has passed off as right-wing conspirators.
Maduro last week met with billionaire Lorenzo Mendoza, head
of Empresas Polar, which is the country's largest food and
beer-maker. The government wants Polar to boost production of
staples such corn flour used for typical Venezuelan "arepa"
In another sign of the rapprochement, the hallways of the
finance ministry for the first time in years are filled with
businessmen in sharp suits. Many carry folders stuffed with
requests for greater flexibility in the currency control system
and an easing of price controls.
"We've entered a phase of creating closer ties with the
private sector, without ignoring the new socialist economy,"
said Finance Minister Nelson Merentes, following a meeting with
The government says the toilet paper shortages, like others,
are the results of panicked buying and unscrupulous merchants
hoarding the goods to artificially inflate prices.
Opposition critics say the problem is caused by the currency
controls, created a decade ago by late socialist leader Hugo
Chavez, and years of nationalizations that weakened private
industry and left businesses unwilling to invest.
The government is still struggling to provide sufficient
hard currency to businesses that import staple products, meaning
the shortages could drag on in the coming months.
Shoppers say their only choice is to buy up household basics
as soon as they appear.
"There are some thing that I can go without, but not toilet
paper, soap or toothpaste, so I have to run around the city to
find them," said Katty de Colina, a housewife in the western
city of Paraguana.