In a sign Venezuela’s food shortages could be worsening, restrictions on the sale of 20 basic items subject to price controls, including toilet paper and chicken, are set to begin next week in its most populous state, officials said on Tuesday.
A spokesman for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government said it is incorrect to call the plan rationing because it is meant to fight smuggling of price-controlled food across the border into Colombia. He said there are no plans to extend the program nationally.
Details of how the system in Zulia State will work are still being worked out, said Blagdimir Labrador, the state governor’s chief of staff, but Zulia will issue computer chip cards beginning next week that will limit consumer purchases of products including rice, flour, cooking oil, sugar and powdered milk, he said.
The quantities each family will be allowed to buy, on a daily or weekly basis, have not yet been determined, he said.
The system will register purchases remotely on computer servers “so the same person can’t go to a different store on the same day and purchase the same product,” Labrador said.
The foray appears to be Venezuela’s first into food rationing. Communist-run Cuba has issued monthly ration cards for basic foodstuffs for decades, although the number of items has dwindled in recent years.
Labrador said the system would initially apply to 65 supermarkets in two cities, Maracaibo and San Francisco, in the state of 3.7 million people bordering Colombia.
The president of the state’s supermarket association, Andres de Candido, said he did not believe the system, run by the state-owned CANTV telecommunications company, would be ready in all supermarkets by next week, but said his group is ready to support it if it truly gets food smuggling to Colombia under control.
Authorities said that is the sole intent of the new system.
“This is only in Zulia State and it is not rationing,” Venezuelan Information Ministry spokesman Raimundo Urrechaga said. “It is focused only on Zulia, to control contraband.”
That is fine with Angelica Silva, a 52-year-old housewife who could not find butter or toilet paper in a downtown Caracas market on Tuesday.
“This isn’t a poor country like Cuba, where we all depend on the government,” she said.
However, Silva was still worried.
“What scares me is that there will be more scarcity and nobody will tolerate that,” she said.
To fight gasoline smuggling to Colombia, Zulia and another border state, Tachira, have in the past two years imposed a computer-chip system that limits purchases. However, it does not appear to have stemmed the cross-border smuggling of heavily subsidized Venezuelan gasoline.
That makes many economists skeptical that limiting food purchases, or rationing, can end worsening shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicine that Venezuelans generally blame on government mismanagement in a nation that gets 97 percent of its export earnings from oil.
One reason is that price controls on more than 100 items imposed more than a decade ago under late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez are regularly ignored in all but state-run markets.
Merchants say adhering to them would be suicidal for their businesses given inflation reached 29.4 percent in April.