Latin America

Currency crisis has Venezuelans struggling to call abroad

Venezuelans are struggling to call abroad as telephone carriers fall behind on payments to international partners amid a currency crisis that is leaving the country increasingly cut off from the rest of the world.

The South American nation's largest private telephone operator, Movistar, quietly ended service to all but 10 countries in May. The other major private operator here, Digitel, cut service to more than 100 countries around the same time, and later told congress it was tens of millions of dollars in debt to foreign providers.

The changes have not been formally announced. Instead, Venezuelans are making the unhappy discovery when they dial an international number and bump into an ominous pre-recorded error message.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks to the media following a meeting with UN chief Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations headquarters in New York on July 28, 2015
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

Caracas shopkeeper Wilmer Ruiz realized last week that he couldn't call his family in Cuba or a friend who immigrated to Ecuador. Both countries have been staunch allies of Venezuela's 16-year socialist revolution.

"We're just falling behind the rest of the world in every way," Ruiz said.

Internet calling services like Skype go only so far toward resolving the issue. Many people don't have easy access to WiFi, so they have to rely on cellphone data packages that can be prohibitively expensive. And pay-as-you-go services that allow for cheap calls to cellphones over the Internet require a foreign credit card, which most Venezuelans don't have.

In Ruiz's case, his friend in Ecuador can't afford a full data plan and his Cuban family has no Internet access.

Phone service was spotty in Venezuela even in better days. Though when a call does go through, international rates are capped at basement prices, with a four-hour call to Hong Kong costing less than 50 cents at the black market exchange rate.

The phones are just the latest things to go as currency rationing cuts Venezuela off from global trade.

Foreign airlines have abandoned the country over the past year because of Venezuela's limits on repatriating profits. Last year, the state-run postal service indefinitely suspended international mail deliveries. In the spring, the government slashed the amount of local currency citizens are allowed to convert into dollars when they travel abroad to as little as $300, essentially blocking vacations for anyone who can't afford to buy currency on the black market.

Decade-old regulations require companies and individuals to get government approval for converting local bolivars into dollars. And with the administration running low on dollars itself amid a general economic collapse, officials have been increasingly reluctant to part with any foreign currency.

Digitel has not received any dollars since 2014, company president Oswaldo Cisneros told congress in June. Venezuela's state-owned provider, CANTV, took the rare step this year of acknowledging in its annual report that the lack of access to dollars has limited its growth.

CANTV, which industry experts say provides about 40 percent of the country's international calling service, did not return requests for comment on whether it is cutting destinations. Federation of Telecommunication Workers leader Evencio Chacon, who represents the company's employees, said international service has been scaled back.

Susana Gonzalez | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Diplomats at the German, Romanian, Austrian and Dutch embassies also report problems calling home. All spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting delicate relations with the government.

Movistar is maintaining service only to the 10 most-called destinations— Aruba, Spain, Italy, the U.S. and six Latin American countries, said Adriana Di Genova, a spokeswoman for parent company Telefonica. The hopefully temporary change is a reaction to the business climate that has already seen the Madrid-based company write down the value of its investments in Venezuela by about $3 billion, she told the AP.

Venezuela's telecommunications commission did not respond to requests for comment. Chief regulator William Castillo has said the sector is thriving despite obvious challenges.

"The entire economy is affected by the evolution in the exchange rate system. But the telecommunications sector grew 100 percent last year," he said in a television interview in December.

Telephone carriers may ultimately start charging in dollars. This month, Movistar representatives approached the Indian Embassy and offered to restore international service if the organization switched to a contract paid in dollars, said a diplomat who insisted on anonymity because he did not have authorization to discuss the issue.

Dollarization might make some expats happy, including Sabrina Wang, who moved to Caracas a few months ago to work for the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE in its partnership with Venezuela's government. Wang gets by with Skype, but wishes she could call her family from her cellphone.

"It's the same with everything here. You have money, but you can't buy what you want because it just doesn't exist," she said.

Wang said she hopes that with the help of China, Venezuela's largest lender, the country will soon be able to reconnect to the rest of the world.