By Ron Gonzalez
Caracas, Apr 21 (efe-epa).- Juan Hernandez has worked as a water-truck operator for 20 years. But he has been unable to ply his trade for the past five days due to severe shortages of gasoline in that oil-rich Caribbean nation, where panic is starting to set in over the scarcity of a product that was once widely available at dirt-cheap prices.
Many fear the lack of supply will impede the delivery of food to supermarkets and the mobility of essential vehicles in the country, even as the black-market sale of fuel is proliferating and motorists wait in interminable lines at service stations.
“This is the first time I’ve waited in this line,” Wilmer Suarez, a food distributor, told Efe after having spent more than three hours queuing at a gas station in Guatire, a city near Caracas.
But with hundreds of cars in front of him, he said he feared going home empty or in a best-case scenario being able to put just a few liters in his tank.
“I only have half a tank,” said the 27-year-old, who even during the coronavirus-triggered lockdown in Venezuela had been distributing a half ton of food per day in an old delivery truck but now finds himself immobile due to the fuel scarcity.
Hernandez, for his part, said his customers – all located in the cities of Guarenas and Guatire, near the capital – call him every day looking to refill their jerry cans. But he is unable to transport his product due to a lack of fuel.
Reflecting on the future of his business, Hernandez said he fears a rival operator will wrest away a clientele it took him two decades to build.
Meanwhile, an even more pressing concern in the short term is how he will put food on the table.
Mario Suarez, a 63-year-old trucker who wears a surgical mask while waiting in a long line at a service station in downtown Caracas, said he is wary about contracting Covid-19 but also is concerned about violent crime.
He said that on Sunday a man was wounded by gunfire while resisting a robbery attempt at a gas station in Venezuela’s capital.
According to several eyewitnesses, two armed young men arrived at a gas station and robbed several people who were waiting to fill up their tanks. Despite the theft and gunshots, no one gave up their place in line, they said.
But other people – many of whom fall below the poverty line with earnings of less than $10 a month – will fill their tanks several times a day and sell gasoline on the black market, in violation of strict controls on fuel distributions established by leftist President Nicolas Maduro’s administration.
These “bachaqueros” have found a new economic opportunity amid the fuel shortages, which Venezuela’s government blames on the severe sanctions the United States has imposed on the lifeblood oil industry and Washington and its allies – who are seeking regime change – say has been caused by Maduro’s socialist economic policies.
At another moment these black-market operators sold other items of basic necessity – food, soap and deodorant – that had become scarce amid the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history.
Although Venezuelans have long considered extremely inexpensive gasoline to be a birthright, that privilege no longer exists when the only way they to obtain the fuel is by buying it from a “bachaquero” for a dollar a liter.
That means the cost of filling up one’s tank can rise to at least $40 in a country where minimum salaries and pension payments barely exceed $2 a month.
Bachaqueros smuggled gasoline for years from Venezuela to Colombia vía passages in the western state of Zulia, looking to sell the product at a higher price in the neighboring country.
Venezuela’s government was largely ineffective in preventing that illegal activity, which cost the nation between $10 billion and $15 billion annually, although it is now redoubling its efforts to crack down on the black-market sale of gasoline as US sanctions and plunging global crude prices have contributed to a steep drop in the South American country’s oil production and refinery output.
But the illegal sale of fuel in Venezuela does not yield significant profits and is a risky business. On Monday, Venezuela’s Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest of a group of suspects accused of reselling gasoline, including several military personnel in Zulia state.