Are Venezuelans at the Breaking Point?

They thought they were used to standing in line. But no one ever dreamed it would get like this.

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There was a time when the word “Venezuela” conjured up oil wealth, beauty queens, and baseball players. Today all those things are overshadowed by flag-themed tracksuits, histrionically ranting leaders, and, above all else, lines, lines, lines. The dramatic collapse of the economy, thanks to chronic mismanagement and plunging oil prices, has made queues — las colas, as they are locally known — the most visible symptom of the country’s failed revolution. And they’ve gotten far worse under President Nicolás Maduro.

Since coming under government control in 2014, Ultimas Noticias, one of Venezuela’s highest circulating national newspapers, has become a wellspring of rosy observations. Last week, it published an article that succinctly sums up the tragic surrealism of everyday life in what was once South America’s wealthiest country. Noting that waiting in long lines has become an unavoidable part of everyday life (“whatever the reason”), and duly asserting that “life wasn’t made solely to satisfy our tastes, wants and preferences,” the author offered a series of helpful tips to make the best of queue-standing:

“Try to stay cheerful, friendly, and make fun conversation with those next to you in line as well as behind and ahead; read; make sure to bring an umbrella and a snack; do breathing exercises; meditate and focus creative energy on the general good…”

And if those suggestions weren’t uplifting enough, the author added a bit of advice on how to improve one’s relationship with the supernatural: “For those who are religious or philosophical, it’s a marvelous moment to take stock and gauge the advancement of your spirituality.”

Venezuela’s vigorous manufacture of such banalities is, of course, nothing new. A few years back, a well known pro-government blog argued that waiting in line is actually beneficial, because it makes people value their goods and protects them against impulsive purchases. That the tone has since changed from extolling hidden opportunity to counseling weary patience is telling: the public’s rising frustration has become impossible for the government to shrug off.

That hasn’t kept it from trying, and high-ranking regime officials increasingly struggle to manage the citizens’ exasperations. Urban Agriculture Minister Lorena Freitez recently offered a reminder that “[before socialism] we had full supermarkets but empty refrigerators” — the implication being that current shortages must be a kind of progress, if everyone has an equally limited access to food. For any Venezuelans unmoved by such interpretations, Congresswoman Jacquelin Farías from the ruling United Socialist Party responds with a call to stoicism. “Just leave your house with your little bag, and you go buy what you need, then go home,” she declared recently. “That’s revolution, and it’s what our president has asked of us, so let’s just enjoy these exquisite lines.”

Readers may be forgiven for finding hints of Kafka in such statements, but for those who actually have to stand in the lines, the situation is more reminiscent of Dante. And it’s not just the lines — the most basic services that underpin any modern society have fundamentally broken down. Even in the coddled national capital, Caracas, trash collection has been severely limited, electricity and water are heavily rationed (and often unavailable), and food and medicine are increasingly difficult to find even for those who do brave the interminable queues. Every day, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are peppered with desperate pleas for help in acquiring medications: often from anguished parents for their children. (Needless to say, Health Minister Luisana Melo’s recent conjecture that Venezuelans “use more medicine than anywhere else in the world,” and that scarcity could readily be solved if Venezuelan were to curb their “irrational” lust for pharmaceuticals, has not been warmly received.)

Lissette García belongs to what was once the Caracas middle class. The 48-year-old single mother of two has a steady job, but she worries she may lose it given the amount of time she spends in line each week. “Sometimes you wait in line for many hours only to find they don’t have the products you need,” she says. “It’s humiliating.” Increasingly she’s been asking her mother, 77, to spell her in the queues — though she worries about her mom braving the tropical sun, not to mention the company. “It’s frightening,” Garcia says. “You’re massed together with strangers from every part of the city, at all hours, and anything can happen.” She doesn’t just mean those standing in line with her. Caracas is, after all, one of the world’s most crime-ridden cities, and citizens stuck in slow-moving lines that stretch for blocks sometimes prove sitting ducks for the city’s many motorcycles gangs.

Aracelis Ibarra, a 74-year-old cancer survivor from a low-income part of town, has become the person sent to brave the lines for her family. “[The authorities] don’t respect one’s age in most places, so you wait there like everyone else,” Ibarra says. She worries that as scarcity has become more acute, and lines longer, people have become more aggressive. “People sell their spaces to others,” she complains, referring to the new cottage industry of professional queuers that has cropped up. These entrepreneurs sometimes even advertise their services in local newspapers. “[Other times people] cut in line or attempt to buy all the products, and that’s when fights break out,” Ibarra says. In the chaos that results from such situations, businesses are sometimes sacked and would-be shoppers injured, interactions that are sometimes caught on cell phone cameras and uploaded to YouTube.

Such frustrations represent a dangerous prospect for the government. Back in 2014, the country saw a rash of larger public disturbances that paralyzed much of the capital but were nonetheless primarily contained to middle class areas. The last large-scale citywide civil strife, known as the Caracazo riots, took place in 1989, when public resentment of IMF-backed economic reforms exploded in a burst of anarchy and looting that lasted a week, and killed many hundreds. The current government’s mismanagement of the economy and country’s subsequent economic collapse have made new reforms, similar to those that preceded the Caracazo, appear increasingly unavoidable. Given the vast supply of grenades, Kalashnikovs, pro-government paramilitaries, and narco-trafficking gangs in today’s Caracas, the damage and death toll of a new outbreak of mass violence would likely be even worse.

Meanwhile, in some ways, the misery of standing in line — which afflicts both the middle and lower classes — is uniting Venezuelans against their government. Since a particularly sought-after good may become ephemerally available on short notice anywhere in the city, desperate shoppers are often forced far outside their familiar neighborhoods. In this way las colas are bringing people from different social classes like García and Ibarra together, both physically and in shared frustration. Polls taken just before December’s legislative elections, when Venezuela’s opposition gained a congressional supermajority, showed that “scarcities” and “lines” represented the first and third highest ranked “national problems” (sandwiching “crime”) among potential voters.

So despite the government’s herculean efforts to mollify Venezuela’s frustrated people and keep class divisions high, time spent waiting in lines — useful though it may be for improving one’s spirituality — may also be forging an ever stronger and more unified consensus against an inept ruling party on its last legs.

In the photo, people queue outside a supermarket in Caracas on February 12, 2016.

Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

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