At one of the ubiquitous state-run gas stations in the western city of Mérida, a taxi driver pulled in to fill the tank of his Honda sedan. He bought 42 liters of gasoline (about 11 gallons) and hands over a single bill worth 5 Bolívares Fuertes (BsF), officially worth about 79 U.S. cents and unofficially, on the black market, worth 3 cents. He overpaid. The fill cost him what would be 47 cents officially, and the rest was left as a tip.
Like many Venezuelans, he’s used to paying next to nothing to keep his cab running.
“Prices haven’t changed much in the last 20 years,” he says. “Sure, it would be logical to raise them, but the truth is, when we hear that the price of one thing is going up, we know that the price of everything is going to go up.”
This rise in domestic gasoline prices, for the first time in decades, is exactly what Venezuela’s finance minister, Rodolfo Marco Torres, is considering. Last week, Marco announced that changes would come, commenting in a television interview that, “A piece of candy cannot cost more than a liter of gasoline,” as is currently the case in the country.
Gasoline is cheaper than almost everything in Venezuela — a liter of fuel is cheaper than a liter of bottled water. The unwavering price over the years, despite fluctuations in the global market, is due mostly to habit and a period of social unrest following price hikes in the late 1980s.
Though Venezuela suffers from an inflation rate of 68.5 percent, the price of gasoline has still remained relatively untouched. The idea of raising the price of domestic gasoline has been brought up many times by the government, but little has been done.
“It wouldn’t matter if gasoline prices went up,” said William González, a service station attendant. “I’ll still have to save up for five months just to buy the tires I need on my car, and they’re not even here you know? I’ll have to wait until I find them on the black market.”
José Mora, a manager at another state-run gas station in Mérida, said, “Of course it’s logical to raise the price of gasoline here. I think most of us are in agreement on this. The government spends 30 times more to produce gasoline than they charge.”
Venezuela’s state-run oil company loses about US$12.5 billion each year subsidizing the cost of the country’s fuel consumption.
But bus driver Alexi García said the government has other pockets to reach into before those of Venezuelans.
“Before they charge us more, start charging Cuba, start charging those other countries in the Caribbean that are receiving free gasoline from Venezuela,” he said, referring to the Petrocaribe program through which Venezuela offers 13 Caribbean nations preferential petroleum prices and payment terms.
As for the effect on García’s fares, the government controls that price too, so he can’t say yet whether buses will become more expensive as the cost of gasoline rises.
Back at the service station, the taxi driver says he doesn’t imagine his work will be affected.
“If it was twice as expensive, three times as expensive, I still wouldn’t raise my fares,” he says. “The gasoline would still be so cheap.”