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Venezuela Enjoys, and Suffers from, Cheap Gas


NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas.



JUAN FORERO: It's mid-afternoon just before rush hour. Ernesto Espinald's(ph) taxi is stuck in traffic, again.

ERNESTO ESPINALD: (Through translator) It's horrible. Horrible. All day there's too much traffic. Before, it was only in the morning, midday and afternoon, now it's all day long.

FORERO: All over Caracas, shiny new SUVs, smoke-wheezing busses, trucks, and some of the oldest clunkers in Latin America - gas-guzzling, eight-cylinder wrecks jam the streets. What you have is a mess that's turned the roadways into perennial parking lots.


FERERO: Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)


FORERO: An attendant at a Texaco station checks under the hood of Maurizio Escatolini's(ph) Chevy Century. Escatolini admits it's a car not known for its fuel economy. He fills his tank; it comes to a couple of dollars.

MAURIZIO ESCATOLINI: (Through translator) It's good on one hand, bad on the other. Good, because you spend less money; bad, because the government has to subsidize the gasoline it sells at that price.

FORERO: Few Venezuelans, though, could conceive of it being any other way. Certainly not Chavez's government. It spends handsomely on social programs and would find raising gasoline prices a nonstarter ahead of upcoming presidential elections. The opposition candidate, Manuel Rosales, seems surprised that I would even ask him if he would consider raising prices.

MANUEL ROSALES: (Through translator) It has to be. Venezuela is a country rich in oil, and it would be a great injustice for us to sell gasoline expensively to the people.

FORERO: If the subsidized gasoline were sold at market prices, it would bring in billions. But Venezuelans recall all too well the last time gasoline prices were dramatically hiked in 1989.


FORERO: Venezuelans are buying cars at a record pace now, as investments because of all the oil revenues trickling into people's pockets. On a recent day, Luis Saponte(ph) was inside SuperAuto(ph). Some cars here, Hummers and BMW's, go for well over $100,000.

LUIS SAPONTE: (Through translator) The gasoline here, is a gift. I won't deny it. That's why you see cars with eight cylinders, SUVs and trucks.

FORERO: Michael Pinfold(ph) is an economist in Caracas. He said that Venezuela would be better off spending its gasoline subsidies to promote mass transit.

MICHAEL PINFOLD: It's almost $10 billion a year - where you have cheap gasoline, where you have price controls for parking lots, and where people don't pay for their parking spaces in the streets.

FORERO: Jesus Bivas(ph), a cabby, is grateful for the cheap gas. He spends less than $4 to fill the tank of his 26-year-old jalopy.

JESUS BIVAS: (Through translator) A liter gives me three or four kilometers, depending on the traffic. And if there's no traffic, it's better because the gasoline lasts even longer.

FORERO: Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.