As Inflation Soars, Venezuela's Leader Opts For Drastic Steps | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

As Inflation Soars, Venezuela's Leader Opts For Drastic Steps

Play associated audio

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro has closely followed the economic policies of his predecessor, and by one measure, he has already outpaced Hugo Chavez — inflation.

Inflation has hit 54 percent this year, giving Venezuela one of the highest rates in the world and far surpassing the relatively high rates under Chavez, which sometimes topped 20 percent a year.

Many basic goods like milk and toilet paper are in short supply, and this has cut into support for Maduro, who was the vice president under Chavez and was elected in April, a month after the former president died of cancer.

Economists say that many of Maduro's policies are only making things worse — like ordering business owners to empty their warehouses and slash prices. Shoppers are delighted but shop owners are dismayed.

Maduro's moves have included drastic measures, like a raid on a bicycle warehouse that was staged for television cameras.

Caracas City Administrator Jaqueline Farias said the owners were hoarding the bikes to drive up prices.

Maduro has also threatened to put a cap on business profits. His government has arrested dozens of business owners and forced stores accused of price gouging to discount their merchandise by 50 percent or more.

Maduro, in a speech to university students, called for volunteers to serve as roving price vigilantes in shopping malls.

As a result, throngs of shoppers are lining up outside stores that have either been forced to offer discounts or are doing so voluntarily to avoid government scrutiny.

At the Caracas City Market Mall, the lines can get a little unruly. But as she waits her turn to buy a computer for half price, college student Giovani Morales praises the government measures.

"Store owners can't be allowed to mark up prices 1,000 percent." Morales says. "They're not being asked to give things away, but to charge fair prices."

Retailers admit that some price gouging is going on. But they say they're being unfairly singled out.

Venezuela's government gets around 90 percent of its revenue from oil, so the country is prone to economic swings based on the world oil price. And the country has gone through periods of skyrocketing inflation, like the year 1996, when prices soared more than 100 percent.

But this year is worse than any of those under Chavez, who led the country from 1999 until his death this year.

Most consumer goods in Venezuela are imported, but the government rations the sales of U.S. dollars that merchants need to make those overseas purchases. That forces them to buy dollars on the black market, where the exchange rate is 10 times the official rate. To avoid selling at a loss, they then must jack up prices.

TV news footage captured the frustration of a wailing and screaming computer store owner in the city of Puerto La Cruz who was arrested for price gouging. In Caracas, merchants say they're also feeling the pressure.

"In the past week, I've received more insults than in my entire life," says David Barros, who sells backpacks at the mall. "They've called me a thief, a price gouger, a dog and a miserable wretch. But this is not my fault."

Rather than profiting from the economic distortions, Barros and his business partner Andres Simon describe themselves as victims.

Simon shows off a flimsy backpack worth about $25. But because it was purchased with black market dollars, he must charge the equivalent of about $250 to make a small profit. Not surprisingly, sales have fallen 70 percent compared with last year.

In the short term, Maduro's measures appear to have worked. Ruling party candidates won two-thirds of the mayoral posts up for grabs in nationwide elections on Sunday. But Simon predicts that the forced price cuts will only lead to more shortages.

To make his point, Simon goes to nearby Samsung and Sony stores, where shelves are bare. He says the owners were forced to liquidate at half price. Now, instead of importing more computers and TVs and selling at a loss, they've decided to shut down.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

MacArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes: Poems Are Music, Language Our Instrument

Hayes, a professor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh, was recognized for "reflecting on race, gender, and family in works that seamlessly encompass both the historical and the personal."
NPR

Diet Soda May Alter Our Gut Microbes And The Risk Of Diabetes

There's a new wrinkle to the old debate over diet soda: Artificial sweeteners may alter our microbiomes. And for some, this may raise blood sugar levels and set the stage for diabetes.
NPR

House Passes Bill That Authorizes Arming Syrian Rebels

Even though it was backed by both party leaders, the vote split politicians within their own ranks. The final tally on the narrow military measure was 273 to 156.
NPR

3.7 Million Comments Later, Here's Where Net Neutrality Stands

A proposal about how to maintain unfettered access to Internet content drew a bigger public response than any single issue in the Federal Communication Commission's history. What's next?

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.