Grim-faced military personnel surround the El Venezolano fuel station, located in a central area of the city of Barinas, 519 km from Caracas. Soldiers control access to the station, direct traffic in the surroundings and maintain an atmosphere of relative safety. The queue to enter the gas pump is about 2kms and is constantly interrupted by power outages, which can last for hours.
Is it an extraordinary situation? No. It is the daily life of each user in each service station in this city. This is how fuel is obtained in the socialist Venezuela of 2019.
Jose, 35, is heading today from Barinas to the border town of San Cristóbal, 307 km away, in the company of his wife and daughter. For family reasons he must be there tomorrow (today is April 5, 2019), but he has no fuel for his Renault Logan. "The last time I loaded here took me 4 hours. I have no choice but to wait, so I take all day "comments with resignation.
The collapse of the gas distribution system is one more edge of a terrible economic problem, which paradoxically occurs in what was one of the world's largest oil producers. The governmental subsidy of the price of gasoline at absurd levels is undoubtedly part of the problem. The cost of a liter of gasoline in Venezuela is 0.0097 Bs (approximately 0.00000026 cents). In this way, filling the tank of a small vehicle costs approximately 4 Bs, in an economy in which a canned Coca Cola costs 3,500 Bs (approximately 1 dollar). This ridiculous price generates any number of distortions throughout the economy and society.
Making the queue to load fuel is only part of the problem.
Due to the limited supply, it is usual to adopt certain tricks, such as emptying the gas tank of the vehicle while the queue is being made, and transporting fuel that has not been consumed to a container. Although the Venezuelan automotive fleet is aging, the safety systems of many vehicles do not allow gasoline to be extracted directly from their tanks, so the seasoned ones modify them, installing "plugs" in the lower part that allow them to extract the fuel in very dangerous conditions.
A different case occurs with cargo trucks and passenger, as well as motorcycles, which make it much easier extraction of gasoline. This lends itself to frequent trade and contraband operations, the so-called "bachaqueo", stimulated by the immense difference in the price of fuel in the border market and the same black market within the country.
Similarly, it is common for each person in your home to store (in conditions of risk) certain amounts of gasoline as a reserve for your vehicles, as well as for your generator, in case you possess it. In the predominantly rural areas of Barinas, generators are very common, due to the productive activities of the farms and workshops. The plastic containers in which gasoline is stored are called "pimpinas". While there are different capacity (being the 20 lts one of the most popular), the need to use any type of container, such as plastic bottles of Coca Cola, and coolant containers for vehicles, highly appreciated for their resistance, handle and plastic lid. Coca Cola bottles are risky and unreliable, because if they are often exposed to the sun full of fuel, they "wrinkle" and collapse, spilling gasoline.
Oscar is married and is expecting a son. A bachaqueo, fuel being one of the most sought after products.
What does a Venezuelan need to "bachaquear" (smuggle) fuel? Oscar takes advantage of having a motorcycle, and being able to make relationships quickly. A fuel bachaquero uses the tank of his motorcycle to fill it and empty it several times during the day, until completing a "pimpina" of good capacity (at least 20 liters). This pimpina is kept by the bachaquero, who probably already has a client who will have made the purchase of the fuel in advance. Oscar's regular customers are people with higher incomes, who cannot afford to spend a full day in a queue or who require a long trip near the western border of Venezuela. The prices of a pimpina of 20 liters in the domestic market can vary between 1 and 3 dollars.
In order to obtain the fuel, Oscar waits in line as many times as he can. It is easier for motorcycles because the line tends to run faster than cars. In the most complicated days, Oscar arrives at a private agreement with the guard in charge of the service station. For a single amount, Oscar is authorized to line up as many times as he wants during that day. Many times it is enough to pay the breakfast or lunch for the official.
This practice allows Oscar a regular source of income, which is complemented by trips to the border where fuel sells at international prices, and is financed for the purchase of foods and medicines that are scarce in Venezuela, and that are highly demanded.
As you can see, fuel is at the center of the Venezuelan economic problem, and clearly reflects the paradoxes of a socialist revolution.