Fingerprints for food: Venezuela rolls out new plan to keep shelves stocked

03/31/2014 7:06 PM

03/31/2014 7:36 PM

Call it fingerprints for food. In the latest effort to keep shelves stocked in Venezuela, the government on Tuesday will begin registering the biometric information of customers who use state-run grocery stores.

President Nicolás Maduro says the measure will prevent hoarding and help keep price-controlled food from being resold for a profit on the black market. Food Minister Félix Osorio said those who sign up for the program by registering their fingerprints will be eligible for discounts and prizes.

But critics warn that the scheme — which is not mandatory for the moment — will be one more way for the state to keep tabs on the population, or might be a precursor to rationing.

The initiative, called the Superior System for Secure Supplies, comes amid a raft of economic measures rolled out amid anti-government protests that have dragged on for almost two months leaving at least 39 dead on both sides of the political divide.

On Friday, the government enacted a law giving tenants of more than 20 years the right to purchase the home they’re living in. The government will set the “fair price” in these enforced sales.

Also last week, the government inaugurated a mechanism to buy and sell dollars called Sicad 2. While the administration is keeping the official exchange rate at 6.3 bolivares to the dollar, the new system, which in theory is free-floating, was selling bolivares at 49.80 to the dollar Monday.

Sicad 2 is only designed to cover about 8 percent of the nation’s demand for dollars, but the implied 690 percent devaluation is expected to exacerbate already record-high inflation and has administration opponents on the offensive.

“This is a government that attacks the people not only with weapons but with the worst tax: inflation,” Luis Florido, a national officer of the Voluntad Popular opposition party, said Monday. “The government is creating economic [chaos] for the people of Venezuela.”

Even so, economists had been calling for flexibility in the currency system, saying it will ease the country’s budget burden and might help tame the black-market dollar, which is trading at about 67 bolivares — down from about 80 just a few weeks ago.

Signs of Venezuela’s economic malaise abound. Inflation is running at 57 percent — the region’s highest — and shortages of basic food items have spawned hoarding and speculation.

On a recent weekend, the line to get into the Bicentenario supermarket in central Caracas wrapped around the sides of a massive atrium and then curled in a tight concentric circle as more than 800 people shuffled along waiting for a chance to buy mundane items, such as rice and toilet paper.

Deep inside the jostling sea, Eugenia Crespo, 33, thought the snarled line at the state-run store might be a good sign.

“Usually when there’s no line, it means they don’t have anything,” she said.

Crespo would end up waiting three hours to get inside (the lines at the registers also took more than an hour) but by the time it was her turn to scour the shelves what she was looking for was gone.

“There was no chicken, no beef, no butter,” she said after the ordeal. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”

Both Sicad 2 and the food program are aimed at alleviating those shortages — and the lines.

At the root of the problem is not enough foreign currency in a country that imports about 75 percent of all goods. Sicad 2, in theory, gives importers a chance to buy dollars.

But the auction is far from transparent. The government is not saying how many dollars are being issued in the market and on Monday the U.S. based Eurasia Group said there were signs that authorities were restricting dollar sales and keeping the bolivar artificially high.

“We continue to believe that the government will likely impose restrictions that limit its effectiveness,” Eurasia said in a statement. “The government remains internally divided over the direction of foreign exchange policy and is prone to ad-hoc policy measures, which suggests that the window for Sicad 2 to have an impact on scarcity, inflation and the parallel rate may be relatively small.”

The impact of the shopping cards also remains to be seen. Last year, in the state of Zulia, the governor tried to implement a rationing system at state-run stores but aborted the plan amid a backlash. This time the roll-out has been more muted. And Maduro says the program will deliver results.

“Once we get started,” he said, “we’re going to take food contraband to zero.”

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