Lack of 'dough' leads to bread crisis in Venezuela
AT A popular Caracas bakery, customers can buy Spanish olive oil, Italian tomato sauce and even American chocolates.
But bread? Forget it.
Cardboard signs on the door with the warning "No bread" have become increasingly common at Venezuelan bakeries.
The country gets 96 per cent of its foreign currency from oil exports, and as crude prices have plunged, so have imports - among them wheat.
The leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro has tightly controlled access to hard currency and this has affected imports.
Now, it is seriously affecting imports of wheat, which Venezuela does not grow.
Add to this the soaring inflation rate - 181 per cent last year, the world's highest - and you see why customers are mainly interested in buying basic food items such as bread.
The few bakeries that can still get hold of a 50kg sack of flour to make bread limit their sales to just two canillas - thin half-baguettes - per person three times a day.
Customers line up for bread in the morning, at noon and in the evening.
"Our ovens are off," baker Freddy Vilet said. His store has crackers, sausages and ham for sale but no bread.
Rosa Perez, who manages a bakery in the Chacao district, said her store is working at about 30 percent capacity.
Venezuela appears to have reached a critical point in its flour shortage.
"We are truly worried about the wheat mills being paralysed," Federation of Flour Workers chief Juan Crespo said.
Five of Venezuela's 12 wheat mills, which employ some 12,000 people, have closed, he noted.
An industrialist who requested anonymity said there is currently "only enough wheat for the next 12 days".
The government recently announced 170,000 tonnes of wheat would arrive in March, enough to cover demand for one month and guarantee inventory for another 30 days.
After visiting four bakeries in a quest to buy two canillas, an angry 71-year-old Francesco Angelastro declared that buying bread has become an "ordeal". In Catia, west of Caracas, the 4F bakery - a reference to the late ex-president Hugo Chavez's Feb 4, 1992 attempted coup - sells state-subsidised bread.
But customers complain that the prices have just gone up and are closer to prices found in privately-run bakeries.
For Luis Rondon, 86, who has been in a bread line for two hours in his quest to buy two loaves of rustic bread, the culprits are the rich businessmen.
He blames the nation's president for the scarcity, rising prices and "not setting the businessmen straight".