In Venezuela’s stalling auto industry, buying a car is no easy task
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In Venezuela’s stalling auto industry, buying a car is no easy task

The empty showroom at a Chevrolet dealership in the western Venezuelan city of Mérida is a skeleton of a once-thriving auto industry. Two salespersons sat talking with one another at one of the three desks making a sad effort to fill the space.

They told me they didn’t have any cars. If I wanted one, I could put my name on the list, with certainty that I wouldn’t get the car this year, and speculation that I probably wouldn’t get it next year.

What do car salespersons do if there are no cars?

“We do this, we just talk,” one of them said. “Listen, I’ve been working here for a year and I haven’t seen a new car in here.”

Since September 2013, Venezuelan car imports have fallen by 99 percent and domestic car assembly is down by 77 percent, according to data from the Automotive Chamber of Venezuela. Major car companies like General Motors, Toyota and Ford have cut imports and scaled back or stopped domestic manufacturing entirely due to price regulations and currency controls that limit profits and make importing parts for assembly too difficult.

One of the strangest effects of this car crunchs is that, due to high demand and a shortage of cars, the value of a new car actually increases over time in Venezuela.

In 2012, Rogelio Pernia of San Cristóbal, Venezuela, bought a brand new Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck from the dealership for 380,000 Bolivares Fuertes (BsF). Given the official exchange rate at that time, that would have been about US$60,317 — or, based on the black market rate at that time, about $21,111. This was when new cars were becoming scarce and Rogelio was forced to pay a commission of 50,000 BsF — almost $8,000 at the official government exchange rate — to the owner of the dealership for finding him the car.

This year, Pernia bought a 2004 Chevrolet Silverado for $950,000 BsF. At the current government exchange rate, this is US$150,793. The MSRP for a 2014 Chevy Silverado is $25,575–$49,180, meaning Pernia paid three times the price of the most current version of the Chevrolet Silverado — for a model that is 10 years older.

“It’s just the nature of the market here,” he said. “There just aren’t new cars and the used market is the only place to go if you want one.”

Buying a car across the border in Colombia is not an option either, according to Pernia. “It’s even more expensive because I’d need to buy Colombian pesos,” he said, “and to have enough, I would need to buy those pesos at black market rates.”

The empty showroom at a Chevrolet dealership in Mérida. Photo: Alexandra Baumhardt

The empty showroom at a Chevrolet dealership in Mérida. Photo: Alexandra Baumhardt


“This is what we have to do now”

The lack of new cars means older ones on the road and more work for mechanics and auto parts dealers — if they can find necessary parts or the dollars to import them.

“Of course I have more work,” said Armando, a mechanic, at his auto parts store in Mérida, “but finding parts is not easy.”

The store next to Armando’s workshop specializes in fixing cars’ cooling systems. One mechanic there said, “There are practically no parts to be found and we can’t buy enough dollars to import enough parts. We build most of the parts ourselves, but every week there are three or four cars that we can’t fix.”

In order to buy a new battery for her 26-year-old Chevrolet Caprice, Isabel Mora checked an auto shop near her home in Mérida, not asking if they had batteries, but rather when they might get them in stock. She was told to come back very early several days later and, at 2 a.m. on Thursday, October 23, Mora was nineteenth in line. By 8:00 am, the shop had opened and employees announced they had only 36 batteries to sell. They took note of each person’s car and model, to see if the batteries they had in stock were compatible.

At 11:00 am, 9 hours after leaving her home, Mora had her car battery.

“You’re waiting in lines all this time, for the battery, to buy gasoline,” she said, “and you’re thinking: Really? In order to drive, this is what we have to do now?”