Life on the Line in Venezuela as Economic Crisis Worsens | NBC Chicago
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Life on the Line in Venezuela as Economic Crisis Worsens

"You Make Sure You Get What You Need, And You Don't Feel Sorry for Anyone"

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    The people waiting for hours in front of the drugstore were dazed with heat and boredom when the gunmen arrived.

    The robbers demanded a cellphone from a 25-year-old in black shorts. Instead of handing it over, Junior Perez took off toward the entrance to the pharmacy. Eight shots rang out, and he fell face down.

    The dozens of shoppers in line were unmoved. They held their places as the gunmen went through Perez's pockets. They watched as thick ribbons of blood ran from the young man's head into the grooves of the tiled walkway. And when their turns came, each bought the two tubes of rationed toothpaste they were allowed.

    "These days, you have to put the line above everything," said pharmacist Haide Mendoza, who was there that morning. "You make sure you get what you need, and you don't feel sorry for anyone."

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    As Venezuela's lines have grown longer and more dangerous, they have become not only the stage for everyday life, but a backdrop to death. More than two dozen people have been killed in line in the past 12 months, including a 4-year-old girl caught in gang crossfire. An 80-year-old woman was crushed to death when an orderly line of shoppers suddenly turned into a mob of looters — an increasingly common occurrence as Venezuela runs out of just about everything.

    The extent of the country's economic collapse can be measured in the length of the lines snaking through every neighborhood. The average Venezuelan shopper spends 35 hours waiting to buy food each month. That's three times more than in 2014, according to the polling firm Datanalisis.

    "As the economy breaks down, life is telescoping to be just lines," said Datanalisis president Luis Vicente Leon. "You have masses of people in the streets competing for scarce goods. You're inevitably going to get conflict, fights, tricks, you name it."

    Venezuela's vast oil wealth once fueled a bustling economy. But years of mismanagement under a socialist government ground much of the nation's production to a halt, and the country grew ever more dependent on imports.

    The supply chain broke down — first slowly, then all at once, as a steep drop in the price of oil left no money to pay for even some of the most basic necessities.

    Shortages now top voters' lists of concerns, surpassing even safety. That's stunning in a country with one of the world's highest homicide rates.

    Desperation fuels the violence. Medical student Maria Sanchez looked as timid and absent as anyone else in a Caracas line for flour, but when a woman tried to cut in front of her and her mother, she threw the first punches. She didn't let up until the would-be intruder limped away. Sanchez passed the rest of the wait with her lips pressed together, her mother quietly weeping.

    "You have to go out with your batteries fully charged or people take advantage," Sanchez said. "Need has an ugly dog's face."

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    The need is everywhere.

    On Wednesdays, residents of one of Caracas' wealthiest neighborhoods line up with empty five-gallon jugs, hoping to catch a truck that comes through weekly with potable water. Poorer people wait at the foot of the green mountain that towers over the city, competing to siphon water from its springs.

    On Fridays, bank lines grow long because ATM limits capped at $8 daily have not kept up with the world's highest inflation, and the machines are not restocked on Saturdays or Sundays. Venezuelans now mostly avoid using cash, and even sidewalk orange juice peddlers have acquired credit card machines.

    On Mondays and Tuesdays, the lines outside immigration offices spill down the street as if people suddenly decided over the weekend that they could not handle one more week standing around while life passes them by.

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    Each night, men push broken-down gas guzzlers along a river to line up at a warehouse that sells car batteries, but always runs out of stock by mid-morning.

    All Venezuelans, including children, are assigned two shopping days a week based on their state ID number. They line up before supermarkets open, guided by rumors and where they've had luck in the past. Some use fake IDs to score extra shopping days. Pregnant women and the elderly get their own priority lines, and everyone is limited to two units of whatever is on offer.

    The longest lines are for what is in the shortest supply: food.

    Nine out of 10 people say they can't buy enough to eat, according to a study by Simon Bolivar University. Prices have been driven impossibly high by scarcity, hoarding and black market resellers.

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    Venezuelans line up again and again for subsidized goods, not always knowing what they'll get when they finally reach the front. When supply trucks arrive, workers throw open the doors, game-show style, to reveal whether shoppers will be taking home precious pantry staples, or a booby prize like dog food.

    Sometimes the disappointment is too much to bear. Hundreds of people stormed a market in Caracas last month after the food truck they spent hours waiting for was diverted. "We're starving," they cried as shopkeepers lowered metal gates over their doors and windows.

    Queues thousands of people long are targets for muggers, who will sometimes work their way down person by person. Soldiers armed with tear gas and assault rifles often stand guard over supermarkets and supply trucks to maintain order. But the National Guard has killed three people and arrested hundreds this summer while trying to control nationwide food riots.

    A few blocks away from where Perez died in the toothpaste line, shoppers waiting to buy groceries watched a mob set fire to an accused thief. After the man was taken away in an ambulance, some of his assailants got in line to do their shopping.

    Although the threat of violence hovers in the air, the line also is a place of ordinary and sometimes extraordinary life.

    Merlis Moreno gave birth to a baby girl this spring while waiting to buy chicken in the oven-hot plains town of El Tigre. The skinny 21-year-old suspected she might be having contractions as she applied her heavy blue eye shadow and boarded the pre-dawn bus. Still, she said, she had no choice but to go. She was out of food. She delivered her daughter with the help of a supermarket janitor, and used a dusty sheet from the backroom as a swaddling blanket.

    On hour eight of a Caracas line for toilet paper, sweaty strangers sang nursery rhymes and cheered as they watched a 1-year-old learn to walk.

    Kids do homework on the curb. Some young men use the empty hours to meet women and score phone numbers. More often, though, love stories end in line.

    Sasha Ramos broke up with her boyfriend of five years amid a spat over a blocks-long line for razors. He'd spent the morning complaining that they were hardly moving, which only underlined that he never helped with the shopping. They argued and he stormed away, leaving her staring at the ground next to strangers who had heard it all.

    "He was so inconsiderate," Ramos said. "I'd even forgiven him for cheating. These lines are not good for love.

    For older shoppers, standing in the heat can be too much to bear.

    Irama Carrero had been staring blankly ahead for hours in a grocery line for the elderly in an upscale Caracas neighborhood this May when her gaze suddenly became more fixed. She tilted backward. No one broke her fall and her head smacked the concrete. She came to and started vomiting.

    While most in line stayed put, a young man volunteered to take her to the emergency room. On the taxi ride over, Carrero said she hadn't eaten since the day before.

    "There's no retiring from this," she said, leaning back and closing her eyes.

    The lines are driven by scarcity and poverty, but they also reflect how much people have given up on traditional employment. With the minimum wage at less than $15 a month and inflation running well into triple digits, it barely pays to go to work. It makes more economic sense to fill one's pantry, and then sell or barter anything not vitally needed.

    So fields lie fallow while farmers spend their days waiting to buy imported goods. Teachers walk out of classrooms to search for food they can eat or resell. Government offices close in the early afternoon because officials need to go shopping, too.

    "Most of these people make more money doing this than their other jobs," said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.

    The most enterprising have turned the line itself into a business. Former housewife Maria Luz Marcano rents plastic stools and charged-up cellphones, and also checks bags at an improvised line concierge stand. She makes half a month's minimum wage in a day.

    "I'm making all this cash. I love being an independent businesswoman," she said, grinning opposite her grim-faced customers.

    The bleakest lines are at the Caracas morgue, overlooking the city. While the other lines are about shortages, this one stems from an excess of death.

    When Perez's body arrived at the morgue in mid-April, families were waiting days to collect their loved ones. The morgue handled 400 bodies that month from homicide cases alone. That's normal for Caracas, but it's more than the annual number of homicides in New York or Los Angeles.

    As they pass the hours outside the morgue, red-eyed relatives cover their noses with handkerchiefs to blunt the acrid stench. The cooling system has broken down and embalming chemicals have run out.

    Then it's off to the city cemetery.

    The wait to be buried there: Three days.