Over dinner the other night, our friend revealed that her parents are trying to get out of Venezuela and take up permanent residence in the United States. After years of toughing it out under first Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro—two thugs who repackaged caudillismo for an ever-gullible audience—her father, a physician, has been reduced to accepting part of his payment in cooking oil and other groceries.
Strictly speaking, cooking oil is probably a better store of value than the Venezuelan bolivar, which even after currency controls were loosened out of necessity in February, exchanges into foreign currency at multiple rates depending on who you are and what you want to do with the cash. The currency controls have had their usual success in preserving the value of the local dinero: none. The government doubled- (or maybe quintupled-) down on its gamble that this time, the economic turds of the past need only a bit of polish to become the gems of the present. It ordered companies to keep prices low, seized dissenting firms, and generally tried to replace the laws of supply and demand with the irresistible force of presidential will.
My friend's parents confirm that, as a result, toilet paper is, in fact, unavailable, leaving those economic turds entirely unpolished.
To avoid the embarrassment of unaffordable petroleum products in an oil-rich country, the government subsidizes gasoline. The result is mass smuggling into Colombia, where buyers really appreciate the bargain.
What is not entirely unavailable, or subsidized to the benefit of the black market is, of course, rationed. Shoppers wait in line for hours to buy a strictly controlled supply of whatever might be available.
So my friend's father is probably better off taking the cooking oil, flour, and other goods that immediately fill the larder than he would be with bolivars that necessitate standing in line.
Chavez and Maduro famously turned to a supply of doctors provided by the Cuban government to keep their big public health system promises, but the Cubans also apparently consider jugs of cooking oil to be insufficient compensation. They keep going to Colombia to defect to the United States.
Fortunately, early in the Chavez years, my friend's parents purchased that most traditional Latin American insurance policy: a condo in Miami. That gives them some assets, and a lifeline, in the U.S.
Most of the Venezuelans stuck standing on line don't have the same options.