CARACAS, June 13 (Reuters) - Venezuelan pop and reggaeton fans able to pay the equivalent of the country's monthly minimum wage for a concert ticket are filling venues for the first time in over seven years to see their favorite national and international artists.
A partial easing of economic woes in the country, which remains marked by extreme inequalities, has encouraged the return of music events in Caracas and other cities.
Since March, singers such as the Dominican Republic's Natti Natasha, the Colombian band Morat and vocal group Il Divo have performed in venues around the country.
"Many artists decided not to come to Venezuela (for years)," said Felix Colmenares, an event producer, noting many of his peers left the country amid an ongoing exodus which has seen six million Venezuelans migrate since 2015.
The events, mostly accommodating just a few thousand spectators, have tended to sell out, including an urban music festival that took place earlier this month in the parking lot of a Caracas shopping center.
The thriving concert scene is one of several recent signs of a superficial improvement in Venezuela's economy since the relaxation of currency controls in 2019 and broader adoption of the U.S. dollar, allowing the emergence of more high-end restaurants, cafes and even casinos, which were legalized in 2020.
A local fashion week even resumed at the end of April inside a luxury hotel in Valencia, the capital of the central state of Carabobo, showcasing 27 homegrown designers' creations - from gala to casual wear in an effort to revive the country's struggling textile industry.
Two sources from the textile and footwear sector said they are reckoning with a series of tax hikes and tight credit, although dollarization "helps."
"People and concert promoters have given themselves the opportunity to bring joy, to change the reality a bit," said Fabian Garcia, a hospitality student who traveled to the capital to attend the festival at the shopping center.
But "in Venezuela we find contrasting realities (...) Caracas is a bubble," added the 18-year-old. In his western Venezuelan hometown of Merida, he said he suffers from frequent power and water outages as well as gasoline shortages.
The country is still struggling with low industrial production, deteriorating transportation services and a healthcare crisis, according to economists.
Inequality has worsened, with the income of the richest fifth of the population increasing last year to 46 times that of the poorest fifth, doubling the gap recorded in 2020, according to calculations by the local firm Anova Policy. It also noted a lumpy recovery in consumption across different segments of the population.
Given concert tickets cost from around $30 - roughly equivalent to the country's monthly minimum wage - up to $500, access is still limited to a tiny minority, with inflation and dollarization accentuating wage gaps. read more
"One sees these pockets of exuberance in some sectors while elsewhere there are signs of devastating precariousness," said economist Leonardo Vera, who added that while the flow of oil revenue is increasing amid near record global prices, it is still far from the boom of a decade ago.
"Venezuela is still very weak and we can't talk about a recovery yet," Vera said, noting the poor state of services and infrastructure.
Nearly two-thirds of households report a deterioration in electricity and water supplies, according to local observatory group, and companies are operating at 28% capacity, according to industry group Conindustria.
The public health sector is perhaps where the situation is most stark. In May, Reuters visited a hospital in the southwest of Caracas, where patients were lying on the floor waiting to be seen and at least four of its nine floors were closed.
Car dealerships, which were closed as companies including General Motors and Ford shuttered or scaled back local production, now house imported SUVs. Purchases of cars and trucks abroad increased 30% in the first quarter of 2022 versus the same period a year earlier, according to industry estimates.
Omar Zambrano, an economist and Anova's director, said the egalitarian dream of Venezuela's late socialist leader Hugo Chavez has yielded to an "super-savage market economy" where it is "every man for himself."
At the urban music festival in Caracas, many concert-goers appeared to be skipping more costly trappings, with most opting for $2 beers rather than $60 bottles of vodka that black tied-clad waiters served in the VIP area.
"This is for people who really can manage it, for whom it's not so hard to pull together a little more money," said Camila Oliveros, a 19-year-old nursing student. "Not everyone can make it because many people work, work, work and every bit they make is just to eat."
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