POSTED: 03:33 p.m. HST, May 16, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 03:11 a.m. HST, May 17, 2013
CARACAS, Venezuela >> Venezuelans scrambled to stock up on toilet paper Thursday as fears of a bathroom emergency spread despite the socialist government's promise to import 50 million rolls.
After years of economic dysfunction, the country has gotten used to shortages of medicines and basic food items like milk and sugar but the scarcity of bathroom tissue has caused unusual alarm.
"Even at my age, I've never seen this," said 70-year-old Maria Rojas. She said she had been looking for toilet paper for two weeks when she finally found it at a supermarket in downtown Caracas.
Thousands of rolls flew off the store's shelves as consumers streamed in and loaded up shopping carts this morning.
"I bought it because it's hard to find," said Maria Perez, walking out with several rolls of paper.
"Here there's a shortage of everything — butter, sugar, flour," she said. But the latest shortage is particularly worrisome "because there always used to be toilet paper."
Economists say Venezuela's shortages of some consumer products stem from price controls meant to make basic goods available to the poorest parts of society and the government's controls on foreign currency.
President Nicolas Maduro, who was selected by the dying Hugo Chavez to carry on his "Bolivarian revolution," claims that anti-government forces, including the private sector, are causing the shortages in an effort to destabilize the country.
The government this week announced it would import 760,000 tons of food and 50 million rolls of toilet paper.
Commerce Minister Alejandro Fleming said "excessive demand" for tissue had built up due to a "media campaign that has been generated to disrupt the country."
He said monthly consumption of toilet paper was normally 125 million rolls, but current demand "leads us to think that 40 million more are required."
"We will bring in 50 million to show those groups that they won't make us bow down," he said.
That was little comfort to consumers struggling to find bathroom supplies. Several supermarkets visited by The Associated Press in the capital on Wednesday and Thursday were out of toilet paper. Those that received fresh batches quickly filled up with shoppers as the word spread.
"I've been looking for it for two weeks," Cristina Ramos said at a store on Wednesday. "I was told that they had some here and now I'm in line."
Finance Minister Nelson Merentes said the government was also addressing the lack of foreign currency, which has resulted in the suspension of foreign supplies of raw materials, equipment and spare parts to Venezuelan companies, disrupting their production.
"We are making progress ... we have to work very hard," Merentes told reporters Wednesday.
Many factories operate at half capacity because the currency controls make it hard for them to pay for imported parts and materials. Business leaders say some companies verge on bankruptcy because they cannot extend lines of credit with foreign suppliers.
Merentes said the government had met the U.S. dollar requests of some 1,500 small- and medium-sized companies facing supply problems, and was reviewing requests from a similar number of larger companies.
Chavez imposed currency controls a decade ago trying to stem capital flight as his government expropriated large land parcels and dozens of businesses.
Anointed by Chavez as his successor before the president died from cancer, Maduro won a close presidential election April 14 against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who refused to accept the result, claiming Maduro won through fraud and voter intimidation. He filed a complaint to the Supreme Court, asking for the vote to be annulled, though that's highly unlikely to happen since the court is packed with government-friendly justices.
Patience is wearing thin among consumers who face shortages and long lines at supermarkets and pharmacies. Last month, Venezuela's scarcity index reached its highest level since 2009, while the 12-month inflation rate has risen to nearly 30 percent. Shoppers often spend several days looking for basic items, and stock up when they find them.
Associated Press videojournalist Vicente Marquez contributed to this report.