Tempers flare as oil-rich Venezuela starts to ration gas at the pumps

Drivers queue
Drivers queue. / AFP / Yuri CORTEZ

BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela — Maria Lopez complains about gasoline rationing that Venezuela — home to the world’s largest oil reserves — has started introducing in some areas to tackle extreme fuel shortages.

“It’s a joke,” Lopez said.

But for ordinary Venezuelans, it is a cruel joke without a punchline — a driver recently died of a heart attack after waiting in line for days to fill his tank.

Since Monday, drivers in the western state of Lara can buy only 30 liters (eight gallons) of fuel a week, while a rationing system based on vehicles’ license plates has been introduced in Bolivar state in the south and Monagas in the west.

Fuel shortages have long been chronic in the smuggling-prone states close to the border with Colombia. But the situation worsened in recent weeks as the United States slapped more economic sanctions on Venezuela and its state-run petrol company PDVSA.

Lopez had been waiting in line to fill her tank for six hours in Lara’s capital Barquisimeto, but had to leave without getting any fuel because she had to go search for medicine for her ailing brother, who suffers from meningitis.

“It’s a joke!” she fumed again as she left the gas station empty-handed, despite the fact that between state-regulated gas prices, hyper-inflation and black-market dollar exchange rates, a dollar could technically buy almost 600 million liters of fuel.

Even though President Nicolas Maduro said last August that the rock-bottom fuel prices would go up, there has not been an increase so far.

Ivan Herrera had also run out of luck: he had been to three gas stations without managing to top up. According to industry sources, 40 percent of the 104 gas stations in Barquisimeto — a city of a million people — are shut.

“There shouldn’t be any rationing in a country like ours, an oil nation,” said Ivan Herrera. “It’s just backwardness.”

According to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Venezuela’s oil output has dropped from 3.2 million barrels per day a decade ago to 1.03 million barrels in April this year. Other estimates put that output as low as 768,000 barrels per day.