Via Financial Times

From a petrol station in the Las Mercedes neighbourhood of Caracas, a line of vehicles snakes back more than 7km through the city, past offices, shops and fast-food outlets, most of them closed because of coronavirus.

Some of the cars are American gas-guzzlers, relics from a time when Venezuela was one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America. Others are newer Asian imports. Vans, ambulances and police cars jostle for position towards the front of the queue. Some cars are being towed with ropes.

Queues for petrol are nothing new in Venezuela but the recent lines have been some of the worst. Crucially, they have reached Caracas, which the government of Nicolás Maduro has long protected and which has been spared many of the deprivations of the countryside during the nation’s long, slow economic collapse.

The shortages are just one of several factors that have put Mr Maduro on the back foot. The US justice system has charged him with “international narco-terrorism” and placed a $15m bounty on his head. Washington has deployed warships closer to the coast to crack down on drug-trafficking. All this while Venezuela’s dilapidated health system tries to contain the spread of coronavirus.

“This seems to be the strategy of the US, to put pressure on Maduro internally and of course externally, just to make him break,” says Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst in Caracas.

As the line in Las Mercedes advances, drivers push their cars rather than turning on the ignition. They lean on them in the tropical sunshine, chatting. Some wear face masks to protect them from the virus. Everyone is looking for what is rapidly becoming one of the scarcest commodities in oil-rich Venezuela — petrol.

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“I’ve been waiting since one o’clock this morning,” says 59-year-old Luis Yaque, a doctor. “I was 195th in the queue when I got here. I know because I counted.”

Further back, pharmacist Gabriela Galinari is spending her 47th birthday in line when she could be treating the sick. “I’m a health worker,” she says. “We should be given priority. We’re the ones who are on the front line attending to patients.”

A country which sits on the world’s largest oil reserves and used to refine virtually all its own petrol is now reliant on imports, which the US has effectively cut off as part of its sanctions strategy.

In February, Washington imposed sanctions on the trading arm of Russia’s Rosneft, the main supplier of petrol to Venezuela. Russia and Venezuela vowed to continue working together but Rosneft passed its assets in Venezuela to a new Russian state-owned entity, a move which may have caused disruption to petrol supplies.

Figures from ClipperData, a US-based tanker tracker, show that in March, Venezuela imported just 48,000 barrels per day of refined oil products, which include petrol.

That was the lowest since at least 2017 and a drop of 35 per cent from February and 42 per cent from January. In March last year, Venezuela imported 179,000 barrels of refined products — nearly four times as much as last month.

The Maduro regime accuses the US of mounting an inhumane blockade of Venezuela and of taking advantage of coronavirus to bring down the government. This is “cruelty in its maximum expression”, foreign minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted on Thursday.

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Washington says it has provided Mr Maduro with a clear way out. He can quit, and agree to the US’s framework for a democratic transition of power, outlined by secretary of state Mike Pompeo late last month.

“Things don’t get better, they get worse, if you reject American proposals,” US special representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams told a webinar organised by a Washington think-tank this week. “I think that’s something that Mr Maduro should be thinking about.”

“I’m sure he realises that his situation is worse today than it was six months ago or 12 months ago. If he thinks it’s going to get better in three months or six months he’s wrong.”

While Mr Maduro rejected the US framework out of hand, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman sounded a more conciliatory note on Friday, saying Moscow was listening to Washington. “We are not avoiding these types of contacts,” she said.

Moises Naim, a former Venezuelan minister, said he believed Mr Maduro had been seriously weakened by recent developments, including the coronavirus. This might prompt senior members of the military — faced with the prospect of illness and death — to re-evaluate their support. 

“The list of challenges, threats and problems he faces is horrible,” he said. 

The petrol shortage has had a knock-on effect on the movement of food. Farmers have not been able to get their goods to market.

“Venezuelan agriculture is on the verge of a definitive collapse,” the farmers’ and ranchers’ federations warned in a joint statement, saying it was “a crime” to let vegetables rot in the fields, fruit wither on the trees and cows go unmilked.

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The government has said it will start producing more petrol of its own.

“They claim they will revamp the catalytic cracker of the El Palito refinery to be able to resume producing high-octane petrol using light crude produced domestically,” said Francisco Monaldi, an energy expert at Rice University in the US. “That is theoretically possible, but it costs money and requires imported equipment.” 

In the meantime, most petrol stations are shut. The military is in charge of the few that are open and motorists have reported paying around $4-$6 a gallon on the black market — in a country where people are used to getting subsidised petrol virtually for free.

Janeth González, one of the motorists in the line in Las Mercedes, says the lack of petrol is inexcusable, even in the face of US sanctions.

“We’re an oil-producing country. We should have petrol by the bucketload and yet we’re in this mess,” she said. “This shouldn’t be happening in a country like Venezuela.”

Additional reporting by Michael Stott in London