Crack a joke and stay cool: surviving Venezuela’s queues

CARACAS, (Reuters) – It’s Sunday morning. The sun is barely up, and already there are long lines outside a large state-run supermarket next to a hillside Caracas slum.

Rumor has it there’s a fresh delivery of milk inside, so there is expectant chatter among the Venezuelan housewives, pensioners and teenagers lining up in the hundreds at the Bicentenario store.

When the doors finally open, uniformed guards keep order as the first shoppers charge in. They find crates of cherished milk to loud delight but, alas, no toilet paper today.

Long resigned to tedious queues for bureaucratic chores such as paying bills and renewing ID cards, this year Venezuelans have also begun facing long lines to buy food, clothes, electronics and a host of other daily items.

“The worst thing is the sun,” says pensioner Hernan Torres, 68, shading himself with an umbrella outside Bicentenario.

“I suppose it can be fun if everyone’s talking and cracking jokes. Sometimes people lose their cool. Then it gets nasty.”

Critics of the government decry the lines as a humiliating new symbol of economic failure akin to scenes in communist-run Cuba, Soviet-era Russia or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

President Nicolas Maduro says the scarcities are largely caused by immoral businessmen hoarding products. That, he says, is exacerbated by a “consumerist” bent among the public that remains unchecked despite 15 years of socialism.

“I call on everyone to save resources, not to fall for panic buying,” he said in one of several national appeals this month.

Maduro’s supporters say the upsurge of queues in the last three weeks – not only for food but also for flat screen TVs, U.S.-branded sportswear and other non-essential items – is in fact proof of the popularity of his plan to force down prices.

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