These nearly empty shelves at a supermarket could be a scene from Cuba – yet this is Venezuela under what Hugo Chavez calls "21st Century socialism."
A screen grab of these sparsely stocked shelves -- at a rural store near the port city of Puerto La Cruz -- says it all. No sugar. No flour. No toilet paper. You can thank draconian currency exchange and price controls for that -- along with epic levels of statism, mismanagement and corruption.
Globovision, a Caracas TV channel under attack by the Chavez's administration, reports that shoppers who live near the northeastern city -- a tourist destination and oil-refinery town -- report products are hard to find. And when they are found, prices are high and lines are long.
When I was reporting from Venezuela in the late 1990s, I noted in a story for Newday that painful free-market reforms -- belatedly introduced by President Rafael Caldera (Chavez's predecessor) -- were making life tough for poor Venezuelans. They were eating less meat as a consequence.
Now, they may not be eating any meat at all.
Recently, the Los Angles Times reported that Venezuela's economy is a basket case, thanks in part President Chavez's election year giveaways that included apartments and appliances. As reporter Chris Kraul wrote:
As perishable foodstuffs rotted on cargo ships that had waited three weeks to unload at Venezuela's largest port, unsettled consumers this week found shelves at Caracas' main downtown market devoid of rice, cooking oil, sugar and other items.
Widespread scarcities and chaos at the nation's main ports, including Puerto Cabello, are just some of the problems Vice President Nicolas Maduro will face as he takes the reins of power in the absence of President Hugo Chavez.Chavez is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba, and his return is uncertain.Other pressing issues include a 20% inflation rate, a ballooning government deficit and price controls that have created a thriving underground market in food staples.Despite an oil bonanza, U.S. dollars are scarce and worth four times the official rate on the foreign-currency black market.Economists say Maduro will be forced to institute several unpleasant economic measures, possibly including spending cuts that would be especially hard on the poor, the Chavez government's chief beneficiaries.
With or without Chavez, Venezuela is facing some tough times ahead.