This article by Daniel Pardo from BBC Mundo explores the reasons behind the prevalence of queues in modern day Venezuela. Below is my English translation.
350 metres. That’s how long the main queue is to enter the Red Abasto Bicentenario supermarket in the Terrazas del Ávila housing development in Caracas.
Added to this queue is another one of cars, twice as long, and another considerably shorter one for senior citizens.
Once inside, shoppers have to line up to get a shopping cart, join one 150 metre queue to pay and then another so the receipt can be checked and they can leave.
“We leave home at 4 in the morning and we leave here at around midday” BBC World was told by Amanda, a housewife who visits the supermarket every Saturday after crossing the city from her house.
Until it was expropriated by the late ex-president Hugo Chavez in 2010, el Bicentenario supermarket was a branch of the supermarket chain Éxito, one of the largest private companies in Colombia.
Since then it has been converted into one of the places controlled by the state where residents of Caracas have the best chance of finding products that are in short supply, like cooking oil, milk and flour.
Although they were seen before, in recent years queues have become part of a routine for Venezuelans, not just in supermarkets but also in banks, pharmacies and even in cafes. “Take a number and sit down” is what a good portion of establishments recommend.
Patience, as well as manoeuvres to reduce waiting time have become highly valued attributes in this country.
Selling places in queues is a business as common as selling coffee at the end of the lines.
During the last decade the Venezuelan government has strengthened regulation of prices of some basic products which, for many, discourages their importation and production. This, according to opposition economists, is one of the causes of shortages.
On average, according to the Central Bank, products considered basic are not found in 22.2 % of stores in Venezuela.
While in Caracas the lowest level of scarcity is reported, in other cities such as Barquisimeto and Valencia the rate is almost double.
“Queues are a primary characteristic of shortages”, economist Angel Alayon explains to BBC World.
“When demand is greater than supply, rationing methods such as queuing and limiting the amount of products permitted to be bought are needed”.
In Venezuela today, the number of rolls of toilet paper or cartons of milk that can be bought is usually limited to guarantee availability to a greater number of people.
Many of the complaints of Venezualans about queuing point out that “we are becoming like Cuba”, given that Cubans – also accustomed to shortages – have been waiting in queues for decades.
“Here we queue for everything”, Cuban journalist Rafael Grillo tells BBC World. “To pay house bills, to submit bureaucratic paperwork, to buy food, to catch a bus, to go into a show”.
In countries governed by socialists with centralised economies and planning, such as the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, queues caused by shortages and rationing were always typical of the everyday lives of their inhabitants.
However, many believe that the shortages in these countries are not explained by problems with the socialist economic model but by an “economic war” directed by capitalism against these nations.
For the Venezuelan government, in fact, scarcity is the product of hoarding and boycott of a small few who want to sabotage Venezuela.
Queuing, of course, is not exclusive to Venezuela. Throughout Latin America long queuing is required; maybe not to buy food, but in airports, in government offices and of course in the streets because traffic jams are perhaps the most common queues in the region.
“A queue is a sign that something is not working”, sociologist David Smilde tells BBC World. “Whether it be on the roads or because of shortages or bureaucracy, the queue is a product of inefficiency”.
But apart from the inefficiency of the institutions, Smilde explains, in Venezuela petroleum income and inflation lengthen queues because there is a lot of money on the streets and saving is not a good business.
A place where queues can be explained by the ineffectiveness of the institutions is Argentina, according to the sociologist Javier Auyero, who after an ethnographic study found that waiting in a queue is a way of “teaching the poor to be patients of the state”.
“The arbitrariness and uncertainty of not knowing when you are going to get what you need is the way that people relate to the government in a passive and patient way, because if you chance your behaviour they remove you from the queue”, Ayuro tells BBC World.
“In that sense”, the Texas University professor explains, “the queue becomes a form of social control, above all of the poor, because the rich generally organise themselves so as not to have to queue”.
In Venezuela, in general, the poor have to queue more than the rich, whether it be because the rich can pay someone to do it for them or because they can buy the scarce products from hawkers known as ‘buhoneros’ -, that sell them at prices up to 10 times higher than the official price.
“Because of that I prefer to queue”, says Gregoria, a woman who spoke to BBC World at el Bicentenario Supermarket. “Because that way I avoid having empty pockets”.
Perhaps the longest queues seen in Venezuela in recent years were those last November, when the government ordered the reduction of prices of domestic electrical appliances in a policy of “fair prices”.
At that time, the president Maduro urged people to not fall into “consumer anxiety”, a recommendation also made by Chavez more than once.
Along this line, some consider that beyond the economic situation, the apparent consumerist idiosyncrasy of Venezuelans explains the amount of queues seen in this country.
“There is a kind of collective hysteria because of the shortages”, sociologist Romain Migues tells BBC World. “But there is also cultural layer behind the queue”.
Besides consumerism, Venezuelans have a conception of time that allows them to tolerate waiting”, something related to the culture associated with the Caribbean, problems are dealt with humour.
Because of this, Grillo says, in a jocular tone, that “if tomorrow the reasons to queue came to an end, there would be wave of suicides due to existential boredom”.
And for this reason, as well, people left el Bicentenario supermarket on Saturday laughing after having spent eight hours doing their shopping.