Why Venezuela is running out of toilet paper

Keith Wagstaff
The Week
A woman strikes gold at a private store in Caracas, Venezuela, May 15.

The government has announced an emergency toilet paper run for 50 million rolls

Venezuelans are scrounging around for toilet paper. Markets throughout the country have run out, and when they are in stock the rolls fly off the shelves.

"This is the last straw," Manuel Fagundes told The Associated Press as he hunted for toilet paper in downtown Caracas. "I'm 71 years old and this is the first time I've seen this."

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The problem is so bad that the Venezuelan government says it will import 50 million rolls to help alleviate the shortage.

Why is Venezuela running low on toilet paper?

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The government is blaming the media. "There is no deficiency in production, but an excessive demand [is] generating purchases by a nervous population because of a media campaign that has been created to undermine the country," Venezuelan Minister of Commerce Alejandro Fleming said on state-run AVN News. Fleming said that importing 50 million rolls would help the country meet its average monthly usage of 125 million rolls.

Outside economists, like Johns Hopkins professor Steve Hanke, are blaming the government's economic policies:

State-controlled prices — prices that are set below market-clearing price — always result in shortages. The shortage problem will only get worse, as it did over the years in the Soviet Union. [AP]

Venezuela also has tight controls on foreign currency, which makes it hard for companies to import raw materials and equipment, slowing down production of a wide range of goods, according to the AP.

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Right now, the scarcity index in Venezuela is at 21 percent — meaning that out of 100 basic goods, 21 of them aren't available on store shelves. Lines for commodities like milk, sugar, cooking oil, corn flour used to make arepas, and, yes, toilet paper, can often stretch down the block.

The flip side of state-controlled prices, writes the BBC's Irene Caselli, is that poor Venezuelans can afford foods that they couldn't before. A kilogram of pasta costs 30 cents at government-run supermarkets. At private markets, it costs 10 times as much.

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That has led to a drop in the number of Venezuelans who are undernourished, to less than 5 percent today, from 15 percent in 1999, according to the BBC.

"There are always queues, but we need to be patient," Raul Espana, a 63-year-old retiree, told the BBC. "Before, we couldn't eat a complete diet. Now we can afford everything."

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