Once a thriving economic power, Venezuela has been hit hard with the woes of socialist economic consequences. Less than a penny: the amount of money it costs the people of Venezuela to fill up their gas tank. Now, with no money in their pockets, they are forced to barter with the gas attendants. Common forms of payment: cigarettes, cooking oil, and even rice, allow for many to drive away with a full tank. The prices of gas are so low, as is traditionally so, in the petroleum-rich area, that many don’t have to pay at all.
It is one small concession allowed by the government: roughly stable, and very low gas prices. In 1989, about 300 people dide during riots that erupted after the president of the country at the time ordered a rise in fuel prices. Thought to be a strategy to deter protests, Maduro has not raised gas prices substantially, even amidst the economic crisis Venezuela is facing. Maduro has long-acknowledged that their government-run oil company, PDVSA, loses billions every year because of the discrepancy between the price of gasoline and the costs of production.
“You can pay with a cigarette,” said Orlando Molina, filling up his subcompact Ford Ka in Caracas. “Heck, it’s no secret to anyone that it goes for nothing.”
Gas is so dirt-cheap that station attendants don’t even know the price. Emptyhanded drivers get waved through, paying nothing at all.
This barter system, while perhaps the envy of cash-strapped drivers outside the country, is just another symptom of bedlam in Venezuela.
The International Monetary Fund says inflation is expected to hit a staggering 200,000% this year. Venezuela dropped five zeros from its currency last year in a futile attempt to keep up with inflation. Soaring prices quickly devoured the new denominations.
The smallest bill in circulation, 50 bolivars, is worth about quarter of a U.S. penny. City buses and even banks don’t accept it, arguing it would take such a thick wad of bills to pay for even the most modest items that it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. The largest bill, 50,000 bolivars, equals $2.50.
Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, was once rich. But the economy has fallen into ruin because of what critics say has been two decades of corruption and mismanagement under socialist rule.
President Nicolás Maduro’s hold on power is under challenge from opposition politician Juan Guaidó, who has the backing of the United States and more than 50 other countries that contend Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was crooked.
Caracas resident Maria Perez filled up one day recently, handing the attendant the equivalent of one penny, the smallest bill she had. Most drivers would gladly pay the true price of gas if the government would use the proceeds to invest in services, she said.
“Our roads are unbearable,” she said while running errands on her day off with her mother in the passenger seat. “There are huge holes — craters — that not only damage our cars but also put our own lives at risk.”
Gasoline in Venezuela’s capital of Caracas, the seat of power and largest population center, has so far been immune from the shortages and mile-long lines that plague other parts of the country and can leave drivers waiting for days to reach the pump. Officials blame the shortages on U.S. sanctions against PDVSA.
Service station attendant Orlando Godoy stacked the food and drinks he received from drivers on top of the pumps — a bag of cooking flour, cooking oil, a bottle of mango juice. He earns minimum wage, which amounts to a few dollars a month, so the food helps feed his family.
“A lot of people show up saying they don’t have cash to pay,” he said. “The idea is to help people because Venezuelans are going through a rough situation.”