Bathroom Blues: Venezuela’s Toilet-Paper Crisis

The government has now been forced to order 50 million rolls to appease desperate shoppers

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A man stocks up on toilet paper at a supermarket in Caracas on May 17, 2013

Venezuelans are used to going without staples like milk, coffee and butter, thanks to the country’s frequent food shortages. But now they’re dealing with a much more urgent crisis: a lack of toilet paper.

Stores have run out, and each new delivery sees a rush to supermarkets. The demand is so great the government has now been forced to order 50 million rolls to appease desperate shoppers. One woman standing in line at a Caracas supermarket that received a fresh delivery told the Associated Press that she had been scouring the capital city’s shops for two weeks. “Even at my age, I’ve never seen this,” another, 70-year-old shopper told Sky News.

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Economists blame Venezuela’s shortages partly on price controls, initiated by the late President Hugo Chávez, to make goods affordable to the poorest people in society (in a government store, a kilogram of pasta costs $0.30, writes the BBC). But that has also led to countrywide shortages of staple items, and Venezuela’s “scarcity index” is currently at 21% — meaning that out of 100 basic products, 21 aren’t available in stores, notes the BBC. “State-controlled prices — prices that are set below market-clearing price — always result in shortages,” said Steve Hanke, professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, told the Associated Press. “The shortage problem will only get worse, as it did over the years in the Soviet Union.”

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But socialist President Nicolás Maduro (who was hand-picked by Chavez to succeed him) blamed the toilet-paper shortage on “antigovernment forces,” reports the Associated Press. While pledging to rectify the situation, Commerce Minister Alejandro Fleming pointed the finger at the media, which he accused of purposely creating “excessive demand” for toilet paper in order to disrupt the country. Whatever the cause of the current crisis, Fleming confirmed that he was taking drastic action: “The revolution will bring 50 million rolls of toilet paper,” he said, adding: “We are going to saturate the market so that our people calm down.”

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