ARACAS, Venezuela — On aisle seven, among the diapers and fabric softener, the socialist dreams of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez looked as ragged as the toilet paper display. Employees at the Excelsior Gama supermarket had set out a load of extra-soft six-roll packs so large that it nearly blocked the aisle. To stock the shelves with it would have been pointless. Soon word spread that the long-awaited rolls had arrived, and despite a government-imposed limit of one package per person, the checkout lines stretched all the way to the decimated dairy case in the back of the store.
Each day the arrival of a new item at Excelsior Gama brought Venezuelans flooding into the store: for flour, beef, sugar. Store employees and security guards helped themselves to the goods first, clogging the checkout lines, and then had to barricade the doors to hold back the surge at the entrance.
Venezuela’s real problem, economists say, is that a shortage of U.S. dollars is squeezing the ability of the government and the private sector to import. Even in upscale Caracas shopping malls, international chain stores such as Zara and Gucci are gutted, their employees standing around with nothing to sell and the mannequins left naked.
While the government has fixed the exchange rate of the country’s currency, the “strong bolivar,” at 6.3 to the dollar, the widely used street rate is more than 10 times higher. Inflation was 56 percent last year — officially — and in an oil-warped economy that depends heavily on imported goods, businesses can’t get the dollars they need to restock their shelves. Even Venezuelan-made items go scarce as factories struggle to obtain replacement parts and raw materials.
“The store owners are doing this on purpose, to increase sales,” said Marjorie Urdaneta, a government supporter who said she believes Maduro when he accuses businesses of colluding with foreign powers to wage “economic war” against him.
“He should tell the stores: Make these items available — or else,” she said.