Venezuela's Economic Implosion Exacerbates Inequality : Parallels There are two Venezuelas. In one, mothers have no milk for their children. In the other, you can get milky cappuccinos. The country's severe economic problems have worsened inequality.

Venezuela's Economic Implosion Exacerbates Inequality

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All right. Let's turn now to Venezuela. Food, riots and bare supermarket shelves have been making headlines in that country. But there is another Venezuela that has not been in the news. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro explains.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: There are two Venezuelas. There is this one.

So I'm walking into a supermarket in the poor neighborhood or barrio of Antimano. And the basics, the staples, people are saying, you just can't find them anywhere.

NERYS OJEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We can't find flour, spaghetti, sugar, butter. You can't find any of the things we really need," says 72-year-old shopper Nerys Ojeda. But go across town to the wealthy neighborhood of Las Mercedes to a cafe called Franca, and there's a different reality with specialty breads.

And I'm looking at the menu here, and they have brioche and focaccia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And while many poor women can't find milk for their kids, here I'm getting a lovely foam on my cappuccino from a barista. So what's going on. Well, that depends on who you listen to. This is Nicolas Maduro, the current president of Venezuela.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: He and his socialist government say they are the victims of an economic war. They say the business elites are causing the problems by cutting supplies to pressure the government.


JOSE GUERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The political opposition, like lawmaker Jose Guerra, interviewed here on CNN Spanish, say there is no economic war. There's only years of socialist mismanagement by political elites benefiting from a country that is drowning in oil. I went to meet David Smilde, one of the leading experts on Venezuela, to get a reality check. He's a sociologist who teaches at Tulane University, and he spends a lot of the year in Caracas.

We're at this restaurant called Focaccia. And yet, all the headlines are about food shortages, but that doesn't seem to be the case in a place like this.

DAVID SMILDE: Yeah. Well, there's a nice selection of pastas between 4,000 and 9,000 bolivares, which is the local currency. That would be $4 to $8 or $9 in the international price, which would be quite a deal for really a gourmet pasta.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But for a worker earning minimum wage, a meal here could cost two weeks' salary.

SMILDE: So how does a place like this survive? Venezuela is an oil country, so it still has - it basically lives on importing and exporting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Meaning only people who are paid in petrodollars can really afford to eat here. So that could mean opposition business people or political elites from the ruling socialist party.

SMILDE: There are definitely people for whom this is actually the best of times, you know, because things are very cheap and people can go out to dinner every night if the rest the country has no chance whatsoever affording a place like this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is the official exchange rate - $1 will get you 10 in the local currency. But on the black market, $1 will get you 1,000. And inflation is rising. It stands at 400 percent and Smilde says inequality is also going up, which brings us back to those empty shelves and shortages that we're seeing right now in Venezuela. When oil prices were high, the socialist government subsidized basic food stuffs, a lot of which was brought in from abroad.

SMILDE: Venezuela just doesn't have the production that it could live. It has to import, you know, most of what it consumes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then oil prices crashed, so now...

SMILDE: There is less than half the goods on the market. You can imagine how that impacts people's well-being.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Venezuela just doesn't have the money to pay for all those imports anymore, and that is now affecting even people with access to dollars, like Professor Smilde. He says every time he travels abroad...

SMILDE: I bring all of our toilet paper. I bring all of the soap we use in our house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says this is the worst crisis in Venezuela's modern history. Lulu Garcia-Navarro NPR News, Caracas.

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