SHOPPING HAS BECOME a feat of endurance in Venezuela, where mass shortages have extended beyond basic goods to everything else, from hair dye to sandpaper and even to caskets.
As inflation has soared above 60% and airlines cancel services to Venezuela over billions of dollars owed by the Caracas government, the list of impossible-to-find-items has grown considerably.
“Now, there aren’t even enough coffins,” lamented Roberto Leon, president of Venezuela’s main consumers association (Anauco).
His group has received 15 complaints from bereaved families who spent more than three days searching for a casket for a loved one’s funeral. Other families have been forced to give up on a funeral service altogether.
Analysts blame the crisis on the strict currency controls in place since 2003 in Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest oil reserves, but which imports nearly everything it consumes.
Under the currency laws, Venezuela only provides US dollars at the official rate of 6.3 bolivars to importers of designated priority goods such as food and medical supplies.
Others who need dollars have to buy them at a higher rate of 10 to 50 bolivars. On the black market, the greenback can cost as much as 60 bolivars.
The situation is getting worse every day, with the government failing to pay out the dollars they owe and which are necessary for businesses to import crucial goods or parts needed for manufacturing.
And the economic woes have fueled months of violent protests in which 43 people have been killed and more than 850 injured.
The undertakers and funeral services association was due to meet with coffin makers to analyse the problems in their sector.
The manufacturers rely largely on a state-run company called Sidor whose activities have been almost completely frozen amid a labour dispute. Other supplies for coffins including paint, screws and sandpaper are only arriving in dribs and drabs.
The supply chain dried up starting in March, said Tomas Rodriguez, president of the undertakers and funeral services association.
Since then, coffin production has dropped sharply, he said.
“One manufacturer used to make 1,000 a month, and now makes just 600 or 700,” Rodriguez told AFP.
“We can’t deny that we are in crisis.”
We have documented cases of families faced with difficulty finding a coffin canceling the funeral and bringing the body directly to the crematorium.
Jose Lopez, a Venezuelan who lives in the United States, says his mother made simple requests ahead of his recent visit to Caracas.
“I called my mother and asked her what she wanted as a present. ‘Deodorant,’ she told me,” he said.
“I brought a suitcase-full, and my mother was the happiest in the world,” he said wryly.
In a beauty supply store, an employee repeats on a disheartening loop, “There’s no more,” to customers looking for makeup, hair dye or nail polish remover.
“It’s been months since we’ve had any nail polish remover or makeup. It’s disappeared. We have hair dye, but only in two or three colors,” the employee explained, showing a shelf full of boxes, all in the same shade.
After a long search, it is possible to find deodorant – but only one brand, and only for women.
“Even us, we need to use women’s deodorant, because that’s all there is,” complained Leon, of the consumers association.
“There are no more blade refills for razors — only new razors, at triple the price,” he said.
It is the same refrain in hardware stores. There are no screws or bolts in certain sizes, let alone spare parts for cars – one of the industries most impacted by the shortages.
The leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro blames the worsening crisis on an “economic war” waged by the opposition.
Leon however blames the fixed prices imposed by authorities.
Two years ago, they started controlling the prices of 18 personal care products. Before, there were 87 varieties of shampoo — now there are eight.
“They are taking away our right to choose, as consumers. You ignore if it’s scented or for sensitive skin; you just buy what’s there,” he said.