Gasoline Shortages Grip Venezuela's Capital Ahead of Christmas

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela’s capital was roiled by nagging gasoline shortages Thursday, snarling traffic and infuriating residents in the stricken country with another woe just before the holiday season.

Caracas awoke to shuttered service stations and long lines of vehicles as motorists tried to fill up their tanks before Venezuela’s extended-Christmas vacation kicks off. For the second consecutive day, honking messes of cars crawled along many of the city’s main arteries as residents thronged few remaining operational stations.

Gasoline Shortages Grip Venezuela's Capital Ahead of Christmas

“I should be buying presents or helping to plan my sister’s wedding, but here I am stuck trying to gas-up since yesterday,” said Greiska Velasquez, a 23-year-old dentistry student, as her Chevrolet Aveo inched along a row of vehicles that stretched two blocks. “Nothing works here anymore, not even the gasoline.”

Sitting atop even more oil than Saudi Arabia, Venezuela has long sold the world’s cheapest gasoline, costing less than penny to fill up a tank. But years of mismanagement, coupled with the 2014 crash in commodity prices, threw the socialist nation into an economic tailspin marked by rampant food shortages, hyperinflation and a breakdown in public services.

Gasoline Shortages Grip Venezuela's Capital Ahead of Christmas

Fuel shortages are now commonplace in the Venezuelan countryside, but they occasionally hit the capital as output at state-oil producer Petroleos de Venezuela SA slumps to historic lows. A lack of maintenance and a shortage of oil has crippled the country’s refining system as the cash-strapped nation prioritizes exports of dollar-generating crude.

PDVSA refineries in Venezuela, which has Latin America’s third-largest capacity, are operating at 22.2 percent, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, while by comparison refineries in the U.S. are working at over 90 percent capacity.

A PDVSA spokesperson declined to comment on the recent shortage, but Caracas service station workers blamed the scarcity on supply problems after a fire tore through a distribution center outside the city last week.

Gasoline Shortages Grip Venezuela's Capital Ahead of Christmas

Andres Estrada, 39, a gasoline attendant in eastern Caracas, said his station is only getting refueled once a day, compared to three times-a-day the week prior, as gasoline was being trucked in from central Venezuela. The scarcity is forcing him to close before 9 a.m. daily.

“At this time of year, we should be cashing-in on tips, but now we just sit around getting yelled at by angry customers,” Estrada said.

In August, President Nicolas Maduro announced he would raise gas prices to “international levels” as part of wide-reaching reform to jump-start the moribund economy. Currently, Venezuela imports gasoline from the U.S. and Europe to satisfy its local demand.

While the hike has yet to take effect, many drivers saw the shortage as a signal of what’s to come. “Cheap gasoline is the last remaining gift here,” said Edgar Malaver, 62, a retired bank administrator, as he waited to fill up his Ford Explorer. “Soon they’ll take that away, too.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.