As Venezuela’s economy has flailed, government officials have cast blame on ice cream shops and crossword puzzles for what they allege is a conspiracy to topple the administration by crippling the economy.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday that the owners of a chain of pharmacies were “conspiring” to “annoy the Venezuelan people” by artificially creating long lines at their registers. The did cut back employees, but that may well have more to do with a shrinking economy than a conspiracy to irritate their customers.
Last month, the country’s tourism minister refuted the claim that the closure of a shop that sold more than 800 flavors of ice cream could be blamed on a lack of milk. “It’s false,” he said, adding that the owner staged the closure with the media “as part of the low-intensity war against the present government.”
Crossword puzzles have also earned conspiratorial glances from the government. In March, Venezuela’s information minister said that puzzles in a regional paper were used to encrypt messages to stoke revolt against the government. That allegation was made after thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets in an “empty pot” protest to demand an end to staggering inflation and the shortage of basic goods such as milk, flour, and toilet paper. Government security protests killed 41 people in what Human Rights Watch called, “part of an alarming pattern of abuse.”
President Maduro, however, had a different take. He called the demonstrations an “evolving coup d’etat” — one he accused the United States was helping to instigate.
Some analysts say there might be some truth to Maduro and his ministers’ claims. Steve Ellner, a professor at Venezuela’s Universidad del Oriente noted that there’s some historical precedent for the country’s businesses to take a jab at the government.
“After all,” he said, “In 2002–2003 the opposition created scarcities in order to [try to] overthrow Chavez.”
Even the U.S.-backed attempt to foment political uprising isn’t all that implausible revelations made by the Associated Press that USAID programs covertly attempted to topple Cuba’s communist regime through local rappers and HIV clinics.
But David Smide, a Venezuela specialist with the Washington Office on Latin America believes that the government is trying to distract from its own shortcomings by attacking local businesses and foreign countries.
“The government uses the discourse of an ‘economic war’ to explain its economic failures,” Smilde explained in an email to ThinkProgress.
A variety of issues have grown progressively worse in recent years”
“At the same time,” Smilde explains, “The monetary [policy] has expanded by over 60 percent each of the past two years. The only possible result of having less value in your economy and more money circulating is inflation.”
Venezuela imports three-fourths of what it consumes, but its currency crises means it can’t buy as much resulting in widespread shortages.
And scarcity in Venezuela is high. Last January, one in three stores were didn’t have basic goods at any given point.
“The things that are the scarcest are actually what we need the most,” a Caracus woman told NPR last year. “Flour, cooking oil, butter, milk, diapers. I spent last week hunting for diapers everywhere. The situation is really tough for basic goods.”
“In the Venezuelan context everyone can afford what they need, but often can’t get it or have to wait in long lines to get it,” Smilde said. “But if scarcities get worse they could generate conflict in grocery stores that could easily get out of hand. It is a tense situation.”
To remedy it, Smilde has noted that the government has worked within its socialist-inspired system to lower taxes and to lower prices on a few key items like chicken, beef, and milk to make goods more accessible. But, he said that much more rigorous — and potentially unpopular — policies will be needed to cut back at inflation.
Notably, Smilde said, the government should try to lower subsidies on gasoline and continue to push for higher oil prices. That’s because more revenue could be used to more adequately meet the demand for goods, at least in government-controlled shops.
“Of course all of these polices are unpopular and Maduro’s support is already at 22 percent,” he said. “So it is not clear that he has the political capital to really take them on.”
And so it continues to play the blame game with crossword puzzles and ice cream shops.