While President Hugo Chavez convalesces in Cuba following his fourth cancer operation, Venezuelans face a struggle of a different kind in the midst of shortages of basic food products.
Consumers are having to scour markets for staples such as sugar, milk, chicken, and harina pan, a corn flour used to make arepas – corncakes that predominate the Venezuelan diet.
"We're replacing one product with another," says Rosa Garcia, a real estate agent who was on a three-day hunt for meat across various Caracas neighborhoods. "First there was no beef, now no chicken. Last night I made eggs for my family's dinner."
Grocery shopping in Venezuela is rarely an easy task, with consumers often forced to deal with long lines and sporadic shortages at their local markets. But the increased difficulty in finding basic consumer goods in recent weeks is raising concerns about the viability of Mr. Chavez's socialist economic policies at a time when the country is already on edge due to his prolonged absence and the uncertainty of Venezuela's political future. Chavez has not been seen or heard from since early December.
Political woes may now be accentuating economic problems, explains Ronald Balza, an economics professor at both the Central University of Venezuela and Andres Bello Catholic University. "People are making 'nervous purchases,'" buying up what they can in the midst of political instability, fearing the possibility of a devaluation, Mr. Balza says.
"It's the government," says Maria Gonzalez, a homemaker who blames the administration for a lack of cooking oil and sugar at her middle class supermarket in eastern Caracas.
Economists say local businesses are struggling to satisfy levels of consumption that went up during last year's election season when the Chavez administration boosted imports of all kinds in an effort to woo the voting public. Conindustria, a confederation of private Venezuelan industries, estimates that in 2012 the country broke spending records with as much as $54 billion spent on foreign goods.
"Consumption has increased faster than production and the availability of foreign currency is insufficient to cover imports," says Balza.