In Venezuela's western border state of Zulia, residents are restricted to buying no more than 2.2 pounds of "gold" a week—"gold" being a nickname for powdered milk. The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the seemingly improbable rationing that was last month enacted in parts of the oil-rich but cash-poor country. The system is a high-tech one, with would-be shoppers subjected to a fingerprint scan before entering a supermarket, where they can buy a limited amount of basics like rice, coffee, and toilet paper—assuming those items are on the shelves. One polling firm found the basics were stocked at 30% of their normal levels in the Caracas supermarkets it reviewed.
The fingerprinting is intended to squash repeat visits, but it's been a nightmare, according to shoppers, who say the machines repeatedly fail, leading to lines up to five hours long. Venezuela blames the need for rationing on smugglers, who President Nicolas Maduro says ferry 40% of the country's price-controlled products to Colombia (economists put the figure at 10%). The Financial Times in August placed the blame elsewhere, noting that economists fault the country's overvalued currency and its decade-old currency controls. Venezuela is a heavy importer of goods, and the controls make it difficult for importers to pay for the goods they're bringing in. Squash currency and price controls, say economists, and the shelves would start being much fuller.