What's Behind Venezuela's Toilet-Paper Shortage?

Maduro struggles to govern as Venezuelans reminisce about the more comedic predecessor.
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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters during a May Day rally in Caracas May 1, 2013. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Last month, Venezuela elected a president on the recommendation of Hugo Chavez. But as the problems the country faces loom larger, President Nicolas Maduro is finding his predecessor's one-man show a difficult act to follow.

It was inevitable that whoever succeeded Hugo Chavez risked being seen as "egg without salt," a popular Venezuelan expression used to describe those lacking charisma. So to a country more inclined to be accepting of economic and social troubles, as long as there's some juicy political scandal to be discussed, there's nothing quite so damning as being as a huevo sin sal, a label Maduro is rapidly acquiring.

The Democracy Report

The signs were there even as the election results were being announced. The huge double-digit polling lead Maduro enjoyed over his rival, Henrique Capriles, at the start of the campaign was whittled down to a mere 1.5 percent margin of victory come election day -- a sorry contrast to the 11 percent victory margin Chavez had scored over Capriles five months earlier.

"We don't need jokes, or songs, or dancing politicians. We've had fourteen years of that and look where it got us."

"No matter what you thought of Chavez, at least he kept Venezuela entertained," says Marianna Hernandez. Hernandez never voted for Hugo Chavez, who died in March following his two-year battle with cancer, but nevertheless laughs along with a smartphone app that replays a selection of the politician's more comedic outbursts.

"Just listen to this one," she enthuses, tapping a speech bubble on her phone's screen.

"I am a-studying English because I want to see the Condoleezza!" Hugo Chavez's lyrical drawl, comedic even in his non-native tongue, rasps out from her phone's speaker. Marianna giggles along with the assembled crowd to the recording, a sound bite from Chavez's weekly Aló Presidente television show.

"Because, she does not a-speak a-Spanish, so I must to a-speak English with her," it continues.

Marianna shakes her head fondly as the recording ends. "It'll be a long time before we see anything like Hugo Chavez again," she laments.

***

"No one knows what they've got until they lose it," said Belkis Brito, the managing director of socialist television channel Guatopo TV, which she and her team run from the chavista stronghold of Santa Teresa del Tuy, an industrial conurbation on the outskirts of Caracas.

A member of one of the more radical factions of chavismo, Belkis works hard to propagate the ideologies of her comandante. From her radical perspective, she has little faith in President Maduro's commitment to the Bolivarian Revolution.

"We voted for him because he spoke passionately about the revolution," she said in an interview in the television studio, overlooking the asbestos roofs of the surrounding slum. "But Maduro is not continuing the fight with the speed that we need. We want to see concrete action."

President Maduro is not only feeling pressure from the chavistas who mourn his predecessor, he is also facing an opposition party that refuses to accept his victory in last month's elections. Citing over 3,000 counts of electoral fraud, the party's allegations range from multiple-voting in chavista-strong areas to polling booth intimidation. Such claims have been lent momentum by the U.S. government's refusal to legitimize Maduro's leadership on similar grounds.

"He's fighting a battle on two fronts," said Mark Jones, professor of political science at Rice University in Texas, "with an opposition that denies his legitimacy as president and with the chavistas who supported him only because Chavez told them to."

The crisis created by the opposition's refusal to legitimize the newly elected president has been magnified by a schism within the government itself. With the opposition barred from participating in congress until Maduro is recognized, decisions are being made by the shadowy "political-military command" fronted by Diosdado Cabello, the congress president and military-backed political powerhouse currently embroiled in a corruption scandal. Ultimately, the power wielded by Cabello within the government could turn into the most serious threat to Maduro.

Polarizing the country further than ever, the opposition's position manifested a brawl in the National Congress and Capriles himself has been threatened with jail for his submission to the supreme court that Maduro's victory be annulled.

Yet while the politicians bicker, Venezuela is suffering. The annual inflation rate is nearing 30 percent, the country's annual homicides exceed those of the United States and Europe's combined, and the chronic shortages of basic goods are causing supermarket waiting times of up to three hours.

"There's no sugar, flour, oil, or toilet paper," said Ricardo Mota, a 34-year-old publicist waiting in a Caracas store to buy four bags of rice, the maximum permitted due to short supply. "We're forced to stock up on these things because we don't know when there will be more."

"It's the government's fault," he added. "The socialists have been fighting so hard to stay in power that they've ignored the needs of the people."

Many observers doubt Maduro's ability to handle these problems. The new president's public confidence and political influence have suffered following a difficult post-election period for the socialists.

"Maduro looks like someone who just barely scraped a win after Chavez left him a 15 percentage point lead," says David Smilde, professor of sociology at the University of Georgia. "His lack of popularity gives him less power within the government, and therefore less mandate to be an effective president."

Maduro has been left with no one but himself to blame for the country's worsening situation. The political strategy of passing the buck to the preceding government is unavailable to a politician who campaigned primarily on extolling the virtues of his predecessor.

"Right from the beginning there was the danger that whoever had to follow Chavez would become the scapegoat for the problems he left behind", says Professor Smilde, "and it's going to make Maduro go down in history as the man who couldn't keep up Chavez's legacy".

"Chavez's charisma and popularity allowed him to get away with far more in terms of policy shortcomings," says Professor Jones. "Maduro gets none of that benefit because he lacks the built-up goodwill that Chavez enjoyed."

"Maduro isn't being cut any slack", he says, "he's being forced to be one hundred percent accountable for the failings under Chavez. This would be difficult for anyone, but it's especially tough for a president who is seen as illegitimate."

Others see little reason to lose faith in Venezuelan socialism simply due to the loss of its posterboy. "Everyone says Chavez was popular because of his charisma," says Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., "but he won 15 elections because he delivered on his promises."

"The government needs to stabilize the exchange rate, bring down inflation and handle the shortages," the co-director of the independent think tank continued, "the situation is very fixable. The economy isn't a question of charisma, it's a question of policy."

As Venezuela takes stock following the loss of Hugo Chavez, the country is looking to the man charged with carrying the torch of the firebrand leader's legacy. But lacking the show-stealing, crowd-pulling, blame-dodging charisma that Hugo Chavez exuded, the irony is that having won the election, Maduro must now win the country's confidence if he is to lead his nation forward.

"We don't need jokes, or songs, or dancing politicians," said Enzo Bogatí, a 40-year-old communications technician speaking from an opposition heartland in the district of Altamira in Caracas, "we've had fourteen years of that and look where it got us".

"What Venezuela needs is sound policy and responsible government," he added, "that's something we haven't seen in a long time."

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Alasdair Baverstock is a freelance foreign correspondent based in Caracas, Venezuela.

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