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Venezuela Racked with Shortages Amid Nationwide Strike - 2002-12-23


Scarcity is becoming all too abundant in Venezuela, where a 22-day national strike is causing severe shortages of fuel, food and countless other goods.

Gasoline stations in Caracas have run dry. Even so, lines of automobiles snake for blocks from many stations, as desperate motorists wait - hoping against hope that a shipment of fuel will be forthcoming. Among them is Magda, who sits on the hood of her car.

"I have been waiting since yesterday morning, but there has been no gasoline," said Magda. "Every couple of hours, the attendants announce that gasoline is on the way, but nothing ever comes. What can I do? I need fuel for my car."

Inside the station, manager Ricardo Freitas looks frustrated and tired.

"We have gone three days without a gasoline shipment." He said, "today we are waiting again, but I doubt it will arrive," Mr. Freitas said.

With nowhere to go and nothing to do, motorists try their best to keep their spirits up. Magda said she has played cards with other stranded drivers to pass the time. "Look, if we are going to get desperate or anguished or aggressive, we are not going to get anywhere," she said. "We have to have faith and optimism, or else."

Magda's voice trails off as she chokes up with emotion.

Opponents of President Hugo Chavez called the strike at the beginning of the month to press for the leftist leader's ouster. At first, some people welcomed a few extra days off from work. But now the true effects of the strike are becoming apparent. Above all, the work stoppage has crippled Venezuela's oil production. As the country runs out of gasoline, transit and commerce are on the verge of collapse.

Already, signs of hoarding are emerging. At one of Caracas' main public markets, shopper Mariela Rivas's cart is overflowing with groceries. She says she bought enough food to last her for two weeks, if necessary. But, she says, there is much she cannot find.

Ms. Rivas said, flour, bread and some manufactured goods are hard to come by or not available. But, she said, there is plenty of fruit.

At one stand in the market, dry goods merchant Angelo Villa stares at his half-stocked shelves. "I do not have enough merchandise to offer people," said Mr. Villa. "Flour and cornmeal have disappeared; I can't get any pasta; and sugar is scarce. Basic things like personal hygiene products are in short supply."

The strike has shut down virtually all shopping malls in the weeks leading up to Christmas, a situation that has left some smaller merchants unable to pay the rent for their stores. But if Venezuela's formal economy has been hit hard by the work stoppage, its informal sector is booming.

Venezuelans have flocked to street markets to buy everything from jeans to shaving cream.

But there are some things that cannot be bought on the street, like medicine.

Manuel da Silva operates one of only a handful of pharmacies in the capital that have remained open for the duration of the strike. He said it would be best not to get sick until the work stoppage is over.

Manuel da Silva said, he expects medicine will be in short supply beginning later this week. He said, this is due to a lack of gasoline, not a shortage of medicine. Mr. da Silva said, getting shipments to his pharmacy is becoming a problem. President Chavez and the opposition blame each other for Venezuela's current plight. But, as the strike drags on and problems grow worse, some people are finding fault with both sides. Asked who is to blame for the country's woes, idled gasoline station manager Ricardo Freitas' eyes grow distant.

"Who is at fault? I do not know who is at fault," Mr. Freitas said. "I do not know whether to blame the government or the opposition." But he added, "if neither is willing to budge, then perhaps they are both at fault."

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