VALENCIA, Venezuela: All the lady wanted was some chicken. But in shortage-plagued Venezuela, she waited in line five hours, only to go home empty-handed.
“I got here at 5:30 am and came away with nothing! It is just not fair that you have to work so hard — and then put up with these lines,” said an exasperated Lileana Diaz, a 49-year-old receptionist at a hospital emergency room.
Venezuelans have been enduring shortages of the most basic goods, such as toilet paper, for more than a year.
In Caracas, a cottage industry has emerged with people who will wait in line for you — at a price.
But things are even worse outside the capital.
The problems are staggering here in Valencia, an industrial city west of the capital of this oil-rich country.
Valencia has big factories that produce food and other essentials. Still, the list of goods in short supply is long.
It includes coffee, cooking oil, cornmeal, soap, detergent, you name it.
Chicken is one of the most coveted.
Frustrated shoppers like Diaz are legion.
One tells the story of people who climbed over a fence to get a good place in line outside a store, prompting police to intervene and stop scuffles that broke out.
Another lady shopper shows off a nasty bruise on her right leg, thanks to a fight she got into as she tried to buy disposable diapers.
In recent weeks, the lines of people waiting hopefully outside supermarkets and stores have grown longer in cities away from the coast, such as Maracaibo, Puerto Ordaz and Cumana.
Venezuelan media have reported situations of nerves running very, very high and shoppers coming close to looting.
At times it has gotten that bad, in fact. In late January, one person died and dozens were arrested in the chaos of a looting outbreak at stores in the town of San Felix in the southern state of Bolivar.
Pedro Palma, an economist, says that historically governments in Venezuela try to keep Caracas better stocked with essentials, to the detriment of other cities.
“It is in their interest to avoid critical situations in Caracas so as not to see a social explosion with truly dramatic consequences,” Palma told AFP.
‘Lines of hope’
In another supermarket in Valencia, a line 50 meters long snakes away from the entrance.
“We call these ‘holding out hope lines,’ because once you get inside, there is nothing on the shelves,” said Oscar Oroste, a 53-year-old chef.
Oroste said that until recently, people would wait in line knowing what was available to buy. “Now, people are in line but do not even know what they will be sold.”
Venezuelans go from supermarket to supermarket, and store to store, clamoring for basic necessities that have prices regulated by the leftist government.
But some buy just to resell at a handsome profit, and economists say that is another source of the shortages.
Egne Casano, a 28-year-old homemaker, said things are a bit better in Caracas. “I went there not long ago and saw that there is a better supply,” she said.
No one knows exactly how bad the situation is, in numbers.
The central bank has not released figures on shortages since March 2014. Then, it said 29.4 percent of the items the average household needs is in short supply.
Some private companies warn that the problem — exacerbated by lower oil prices, the source of virtually all hard currency in Venezuela — has got much worse since then. Venezuela imports most of its food and basic necessities.
In the long lines, people digest their woes with a mix of humor, resignation and anger.
At another supermarket in Valencia, a whopping 600 people stood in line under a blazing sun to buy powdered milk.
Graciela Duran, a retiree, got a kilo of it after waiting for four hours.
“I was lucky today, sometimes I come and there is nothing,” she said.
“Waiting in huge lines is what we do all day, every day,” said Duran, shielding herself from the sun with an umbrella.
A dozen police were stationed at the entrance of the store and around the parking lot through which the queue moved.
A truck drove by and the driver shouted out sarcastically: “Homeland, homeland, beloved homeland.”
That comes from a song that late president Hugo Chavez used to sing and is heard often on government-run media and at official events.