CARACAS • Something strange has started to appear in Venezuelan grocery stores - food.
After years of shortages of even the most basic items, shelves are once again heaving under the weight of imported goods such as Brazilian mayonnaise and margarine, or Colombian coffee and rice. This new-found abundance has come at a price though. Many shoppers can't afford to buy the goods.
"There are oil and bread, but it's impossible to afford the prices," said teacher Veronica Parra. "I earn more than the minimum wage, but I will still have to limit what I buy."
Without announcing any formal change in policy, Venezuela's government has started to give up on imposing price controls at private stores. Instead, the government has ordered suppliers to sell half of their products to the state-distribution system known as Clap that delivers subsidised food to the country's poor. The rest can be sold at whatever price they want.
"There's been a price correction through a dirty adjustment being carried out by the government," said Mr Asdrubal Oliveros, director of Caracas-based economic consultancy Ecoanalitica. "There have not been any actual economic reforms, but the government has been ignoring the controls previously applied to the import of non-essential items."
There is a dual shopping system, with the government supplying the Clap network and regulated government stores with products acquired using a preferential exchange rate of only 10 bolivars per dollar. At the same time, the private sector is stocking its shelves using dollars acquired at a secondary exchange rate, known as Simadi, of about 660 bolivars per dollar or the even more expensive black market rate, Mr Oliveros said.
The relief at seeing goods back in the stores may not last long as prices spiral higher, said Mr Jose Antonio Gil, director of the polling agency Datanalisis. In many cases, though, prices haven't just reached international levels; they have gone way above them as importers and producers compensate for losses on sales to the state-run system by charging extra-high prices to other consumers.
A bottle of imported Heinz Ketchup at a shop in the upscale Chacao neighborhood in Caracas is selling for 6,670 bolivars, almost US$7 (S$9.70) at the illegal street exchange rate. That is 10 per cent of the monthly minimum wage of about 65,000 bolivars, and out of reach for most Venezuelans.
With no official statistics on inflation - the central bank hasn't published consumer price data this year - private economists estimate that inflation will be anywhere from 220 per cent to 1,500 per cent this year, according to a survey conducted by Bloomberg.