TASAJERA, Venezuela —– Farmer Luis Garcia has coped with many of the shortages that plague his economically distressed nation: toilet paper, shampoo, sugar. But the latest scarcity is more than Garcia can swallow. Beer.
For as long as he can remember, Garcia, 43, has ended each day in this central Venezuelan fishing village with a beer or two at his local tasca (bar). Now, that’s going to be impossible because the country’s largest brewery has shut its operations and laid off 10,000 workers, citing a lack of malted barley.
“What are we coming to when we can’t even buy a beer?” griped Garcia, who said he can no longer support the socialist revolution started by popular President Hugo Chavez and continued by his unpopular successor, Nicolas Maduro. “This country is just falling apart.”
Cerveceria Polar, which produces more than three-quarters of the country’s suds, closed the last of its four domestic breweries in late April. The culprit, the company said, was the Venezuelan government’s repeated delays in selling it dollars to import supplies it needs to keep operating.
Under Venezuela’s foreign exchange restrictions initiated by Chavez in 2003, the government controls access to dollars, deciding which companies qualify for them. Polar’s beer division has been cut off from accessing dollars, and the company claims its suppliers abroad have frozen its credit lines, demanding payment in dollars.
That is not going down well in this nation of 30 million who love their beer, especially given the country's hot, tropical weather.
According to statistics compiled by the Kirin Beer University, Venezuela has the highest beer consumption in South America, 75 quarts per person a year. That places Venezuela 25th in global beer consumption, slightly behind the USA, which averages 80 quarts a person.
A bottle of Polar, which sports a polar bear on its label, costs 14 cents at the black market rate but $15 at the official exchange rate that is rarely used.
Empresas Polar, the holding company that owns the brewery, has had a difficult relationship with Maduro. The Venezuelan president has charged that the company and its chief executive, Lorenzo Mendoza, are waging an economic war against his government.
Maduro claims Polar, especially its food division that produces ground cornmeal, rice and pasta, created shortages to damage support for his government. Maduro, who faces a recall campaign, wins approval from only 20% of the public, according to the latest polls.
Maduro threatened during May Day celebrations on Sunday to seize Polar’s shuttered breweries. “A plant closed is a plant taken over by the working class,” Maduro told supporters. He ordered the country’s food inspectors to determine whether the company really was out of malted barley.
The Venezuelan government under Chavez, who died in 2013, and now Maduro has seized more than 1,000 companies since Chavez came to power in 1999.
The shortages of imported goods stemming from the currency exchange controls have sent inflation soaring above 700% — the highest in the world —and the economy is projected to contract by as much as 8% this year, following a similar contraction in 2015.
Venezuelans have put up with severe shortages of basic goods, medicines, spare parts and electricity. But a shortage of beer is another matter.
“I think that the government is doing this to punish (Polar CEO) Mendoza,” said Minerva Salazar, who runs the tasca here. Salazar said she’s going to take a big hit as well: beer sales make up 50% of her revenue.
Salazar is scurrying to find Regional beer, which the government has allowed to import barley. But that brewer is too small to make up for Polar's shutdown.
“I have enough Polar on hand for a few more days,” said Salazar. “After that, it’s over. I don’t know what I am going to do."