Venezuelans block streets with cars to protest gas shortage in Andes

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) - Dozens of Venezuelans on Friday brought the Andean city of San Cristobal to a standstill by blocking roads with their cars to protest gas shortages that have piled further misery on the OPEC nation’s crisis-weary citizens.

“We have been here since Tuesday night waiting for a delivery truck and it is unacceptable for us to be begging for gasoline in an oil-rich country,” said Maria Auxiliadora Prato, 68, as she cut off one of the city’s main avenues with her car.

National Guard soldiers later made protesters remove their vehicles from the middle of the street, but angry Venezuelans instead used branches, bottles, tires and garbage bags to snarl traffic.

“We have had to take our pillows to the car to be able to sleep during a three-day wait for 40 liters (10.6 gallons) of gas,” said protester Cesar Mendez, 41, speaking next to a queue of hundreds of cars waiting for gas.

“We do not have money to eat the meat that the president eats,” added a tired-looking Mendez in reference to President Nicolas Maduro’s expensive steak dinner at a “Salt Bae” restaurant in Istanbul this month.

Venezuela, which has the world’s cheapest gasoline, has been plagued by intermittent fuel shortages in recent months as its oil industry struggles with lower production and problematic refineries.

Maduro’s leftist government blamed the shortages on power cuts in nearby Zulia, an oil-producing state that is suffering near-daily blackouts because government-owned power stations lack maintenance and spare parts.

Government critics say inept management of Venezuela’s oil industry, home to the world’s biggest crude reserves, is to blame for the shortages.

“Tachira without gas, thanks to failed communism,” tweeted Tachira opposition legislator Franklyn Duarte.

The government this month also rolled out a new payment system in eight states near the Colombian border, including Tachira where San Cristobal is located, in an attempt to halt widespread smuggling of Venezuela’s gas to Colombia.

Maduro says the payment system will pave the way for charging international prices for fuel - a massive increase given that gas is now almost free - as his government seeks to shore up state coffers amid a hyperinflationary economic meltdown.

The pilot program was designed to provide service stations with wireless devices that use a controversial state-backed identification document to carry out transactions. The document, called the Fatherland Card, is meant to provide subsidies to motorists to help soften the impact of the steep price increases.

Maduro announced on Thursday night that the program would be rolled out in the rest of Venezuela on Monday.

Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrea Ricci