In a move that will no doubt help further the Venezuelan government's aim of establishing a socialist utopian republic, President Nicolas Maduro announced this week that grocery stores will soon begin the mandatory fingerprinting of customers. The peculiar initiative, which could be implemented by the end of the year, is meant to help combat the hoarding and smuggling of government-subsidized goods.
Venezuela exerts stringent currency and price controls on many products in an attempt to keep them affordable for its poorest citizens. Unfortunately, a staggering quantity of this merchandise ends up being secreted out of the country and re-sold at a profit in neighboring Colombia.
The oil-rich nation has been experiencing a chronic shortage of food supplies for a long while. Maduro, who succeeded the late Hugo Chavez, accused the political opposition last year of engineering the country's shortages with the help of the CIA in order to undermine his government.
Venezuela's central bank periodically publishes a scarcity index that quantifies the lack of staples. The last index, published in March, estimated that more than 26 percent of basic household goods were out of stock in the country's stores. The inability to buy essentials like rice, coffee, milk, cooking oil, and corn flour — which is used to make arepas, the national bread — reflects Venezuela's crippled economic condition, hampered by sky-high inflation and dwindling foreign currency reserves. Toilet paper, newsprint, and even coffins are scarce; production of the latter has lately dropped off upwards of 50 percent, forcing grieving families to delay funerals and burials in one of the most violent countries in the world.
Faced with empty store shelves due to the combination of price controls, currency restrictions, and smuggling, Venezuelans are having a hard time finding the basics they need to live. The crisis has spurred the development of an app called Abasteceme ("Supply Me"), which allows shoppers to document and share where they have managed to find products.
The fingerprinting proposal, which critics decried as an invasion of privacy and an attempt to institute a Cuban-style rationing program, would be similar to an anti-fraud system Venezuela currently employs during elections, in which voting machines require the validation of a registered fingerprint. The mandatory fingerprinting is intended to prevent shoppers from buying too much of any one item and then reselling inventory bought below cost on a robust black market, or smuggling it out of the country.
General Efrain Velasco Lugo, a Venezuelan military spokesman, recently told Venezuela's El Universal newspaper that the government believes that roughly 40 percent of subsidized goods are smuggled into Colombia. One example of this resource drain is gasoline. Venezuela boasts the lowest gas prices in the world. At the unofficial exchange rate, a gallon costs less than a penny.
Prior to the announcement of the fingerprinting proposal, the government attempted to stop the siphoning of fuel and goods to black markets by enacting a nightly closure of the Colombian border. Maduro and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced the trial program on August 1. It began in mid-August and will continue until mid-September. Santos endorsed the measure because of his country's loss of tax revenue due to smuggling, and on the theory that proceeds from smuggling help finance drug trafficking.
The closure was enforced by the deployment of 17,000 troops along the 1,400-mile border. All crossings were closed between 10 PM and 5 AM, with a longer prohibition in effect for trucks and vans. Some reports suggested that 20,000 liters of gasoline were seized during the first eight days of the ban, but no official figures have yet been released.
Before Maduro's government began squeezing the Colombian smuggling conduit, it is estimated that the equivalent of approximately 100,000 barrels of cheap fuel was being smuggled across the border daily.
According to Venezuelan General Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the government has already seized 10.5 million gallons of gasoline and 21,000 tons of food from smugglers this year.
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