Santa Claus walks during a visit to residents of the slum of Petare in Caracas
By Andreina Aponte
CARACAS (Reuters) - As a harrowing economic crisis makes food scarce for millions of Venezuelans, many families cannot buy their children Christmas presents, decorate their home, or even host a holiday dinner.
The oil-rich country is suffering the third year of a recession that has sparked product shortages and galloping inflation. With a recent currency depreciation pumping up prices even higher, some parents are simply canceling Christmas.
"Last year I bought everything for my daughter," said Dileida Palacios, a 40-year-old hairdresser dressed in black to mourn her son killed in crime-rife Venezuela a few weeks ago.
"This year I had to tell her everything is tough and Santa Claus isn't coming."
Like Palacios, about 38.5 percent of Venezuelans think this Christmas will be worse than last year's, and 35 percent think it will be the worst ever, according to a poll by consultancy Ecoanalitica and Catholic University Andres Bello.
Several days of unrest over a national cash shortage have added to the grim national mood.
Once merrily decorated during the holidays, Caracas looks shabby. Many stores are empty, closed or selling cruelly expensive toys, Christmas trees, and holiday treats like "hallacas," a cornmeal dish wrapped in plantain leaves.
Eight-year old Helen Ramirez, who lives in Caracas' sprawling Petare slum, asked Santa for food for her family and pink roller skates from the Disney show "I'm Luna."
But those skates are far out of reach for Ramirez's family at about 400,000 bolivars, roughly $100 at the black market rate and about 14 times the monthly minimum wage.
"This year we didn't decorate the house or anything," said Ramirez's grandmother, Nelys Benavides, during a charity-organized present giveaway in Petare. "We have nothing."
President Nicolas Maduro's leftist government accuses businessmen and rival politicians of seeking to stoke anger and ruin Christmas.
State media has feted the arrival of 200 containers of toys and food in Venezuela's otherwise largely deserted ports, and Maduro lit a cross on Caracas' Avila mountain in November to usher in early holidays.
His government confiscated 3.8 million toys from importer Kreisel, accusing the company of hoarding and price gouging.
Two Kreisel executives have been jailed, and Socialist Party committees have been distributing the toys to children.
"That's what you call a reinforcement for Father Christmas, right?" the president laughed, stroking his mustache during a recent speech on state TV. "Saint Nicolas without a beard; Saint Nicolas with a mustache!"
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Lisa Von Ahn)