Not everyone in Venezuela is shouting in the streets about crime, inflation and the country's continuing slide toward authoritarian rule. In working-class neighborhoods, the crowds are standing in line at the state-owned grocery store, clutching their new electronic identification cards.

The cards aren't like the plastic tags familiar to Americans, who use them to claim discounts or earn points toward a future bonus. Venezuela's fingerprint ID system monitors purchases and alerts the government when a shopper tries to buy too many of the same item.

Hoarding is a crime in Venezuela, where consumers live with chronic shortages of milk, cooking oil, sugar, flour - and, cruelly, toilet paper. But armed security guards patrolling the aisles haven't kept people from stripping the shelves of cornmeal, coffee and other government-subsidized staples to build their own stockpiles or sell on the black market.

The government blames the shortages on greedy capitalists trying to drive up the prices of their products. (Under a broader conspiracy theory, the United States and Venezuela's other enemies are creating artificial shortages in order to destabilize the economy.)

Farmers and merchants blame government price controls that wipe out their profits. Why raise chickens or make butter if you're forced to sell below cost?

The socialists who run the country are sticking to their losing strategy of trying to mollify the masses with cheap goods. It worked for 14 years for President Hugo Chavez, the bombastic populist who died last year. Chavez won the hearts of the country's poor by spending billions on government subsidies, restricting food and gasoline prices and nationalizing farms and businesses that he said were failing to keep up with production. He even awarded a free government-built home to his 3 millionth follower on Twitter.

Venezuela's economy was stumbling badly before Chavez died of cancer last March, and things have gotten worse under his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. The nation's currency is nearly worthless. Inflation was 56 percent last year.

In September, the government took control of the nation's largest manufacturer of toilet paper, supposedly to oversee production. But shortages persist. Then in the weeks before December's municipal elections, Maduro decided to fight inflation at gunpoint, ordering the military to seize a national appliance store chain and sell its refrigerators, microwaves and plasma TVs at "fair prices." Other retail takeovers followed, as government price inspectors accused shop owners of gouging and threatened them with prosecution.

In January, students in the western border state of Tachira took to the streets after the attempted rape of a university student. Since then, demonstrations have spread throughout the country, protesting the government's failure to contain escalating lawlessness, its economic policies and the scarcity of basic goods. Nightly clashes between protesters and security forces have left more than three dozen dead. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, arrested in February, was formally charged last week with inciting violence.

Venezuela's government says the protests are an attempted coup supported by the U.S. and other fascists and/or a middle-class tantrum not supported by the working class.

Those claims ignore the obvious: This is what happens when a government can't keep its neighborhoods safe, when it seizes private enterprises and silences media critics, when it jails its political foes and dispatches the military to deal with protesters.

On a very basic level, it's what happens when a country keeps running out of toilet paper.

 

—Chicago Tribune, April 11