Last week a Venezuelan-American friend in New York sent me an e-mail raving about a new, free mobile phone app called Abastéceme. Its most important use: locating toilet paper. Well, that and about two dozen other basic everyday items, from rice to deodorant, which are in chronically short supply these days in Venezuela.
Abastéceme -- which in Spanish means Supply Me -- alerts people when these products suddenly show up at stores in Caracas and around the country. Theoretically, a Venezuelan ex-pat sitting in Miami could use the app to let his mamá in Maracaibo know when a shipment of eggs just arrived at a local supermarket.
Isabel Alvarez will probably download Abastéceme. The middle-class Caracas housewife just returned to Venezuela after visiting her daughter, Indra Reyes, in Deerfield Beach.
Before she left, Alvarez showed me four large suitcases. Normally, she would have stuffed them with gifts and souvenirs; this time they were bulging with goods like coffee, toothpaste, tampons, soap and harina pan, the cornmeal used to make Venezuela’s food staple, arepas. And yes, toilet paper - which to many visiting Venezuelans nowadays sits on South Florida Walmart shelves like row after row of gems on the wall of a diamond mine.
Alvarez had already sent three larges boxes of all that stuff home by boat. “How is it possible in the 21st Century,” Alvarez asked me, “that in a country as rich as Venezuela, we can’t find things as basic as this?”
Good question. South Florida families have been ferrying necessities like these to relatives back in communist Cuba for decades. But Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world as well as a private sector. So how, to echo Alvarez, did the country get in this mess in the 21st century?
Simple: “21st-Century socialism,” the radical project of Venezuela’s late left-wing president, Hugo Chávez, who died in March after a 14-year rule.
Despite the authoritarian governance and anti-U.S. theatrics of his Bolivarian Revolution, I am the first to salute the fact that Chávez reduced poverty in Venezuela.
But he unfortunately undermined that effort in the long run by seriously mismanaging the economy. With hundreds of billions of dollars in petro-cash flowing into Venezuela during his reign, and with the country relying so heavily on imports, inflation skyrocketed.
Chávez tried to contain it with price and currency controls, as well as the nationalization of private industry; but all that did was reduce business incentive to produce even the simplest goods.
One result: inexcusable shortages. Says Indra Reyes, “Each week now for the Venezuelan people it is a problem to find the essential products to live.”
Here in South Florida, Venezuelan families like Reyes’ are trying to figure out how to get more of those goods back to the motherland -- if only to keep relatives there from falling prey to unscrupulous black marketeers.
“The level of corruption has become a big concern,” says Gustavo Garagorry, director of the Venezuelan Business Club in Doral, a major Venezuelan enclave west of Miami.
Doral’s mayor, Venezuelan native Luigi Boria, agrees.
“If you go to any given supermarket [in Venezuela], you don’t find anything,” he says. “But then, you go to the street, you see all these people [who aren't] regulated by the government, selling at three, four, five times the price.”
An Economy In Crisis
Venezuelans are one of South Florida’s fastest-growing communities, but watching the long, panicked grocery store lines back home on television makes them “sad,” says Boria, “because they don’t see any way to a solution of this problem. They’re frustrated, they don’t now what to do.”
Chávez’s hand-picked successor, new Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro -- who only barely won the April 14 special presidential election, thanks largely to the economic problems -- accuses what he calls “bourgeois” Venezuelan corporations like food and beverage giant Polar of creating the shortages in order to drive up prices.
“It’s time they worked in the country’s interests for a change,” Maduro recently told supporters in Caracas. “Their duty is to produce for the country.”
I’m no fan of Venezuela’s economic elite, either: one shouldn't forget that the country was even more corrupt before Chávez took power. But here, Chavistas, is the Economics 101 reality, whether you’re a capitalist or a socialist: no profit, no production, and Chavismo has utterly deflated the profit motive in Venezuela. That's a big reason, for example, why the country has one of the western hemisphere’s lowest levels of foreign investment.
The Bolivarian Revolution has vowed to import 50 million rolls of toilet paper to alleviate that scarcity. But raising imports only stands to exacerbate the underlying causes of this crisis. And that could make Abastéceme’s inventor, José Augusto Montiel, who designed the app for Android devices, a very popular man.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan police are raiding contraband warehouses. One of their most recent busts: 2,500 rolls of toilet paper.