CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelans scrambled to stock up on toilet paper Thursday, as fears of a bathroom emergency spread despite the socialist government's promise to import 50 million rolls.
After years of economic dysfunction, the country has gotten used to shortages of medicines and basic food items such as milk and sugar, but the scarcity of bathroom tissue has caused unusual alarm.
"Even at my age, I've never seen this," said Maria Rojas, 70, who said she had been looking for toilet paper for two weeks when she finally found it at a downtown Caracas supermarket.
Thousands of rolls flew off the store's shelves as consumers streamed in and loaded up shopping carts Thursday morning. "I bought it because it's hard to find," said Maria Perez, walking out with several rolls of paper. "Here, there's a shortage of everything -- butter, sugar, flour," she said. But the latest shortage is particularly worrisome "because there always used to be toilet paper."
Economists say Venezuela's shortages of some consumer products stem from price controls meant to make basic goods available to the poorest parts of society and the government's controls on foreign currency.
President Nicolas Maduro, selected by the dying Hugo Chavez to carry on his "Bolivarian revolution," claims that anti-government forces, including the private sector, are causing the shortages in an effort to destabilize the country. The government this week announced that it would import 760,000 tons of food and 50 million rolls of toilet paper.
Commerce Minister Alejandro Fleming said "excessive demand" for tissue had built up due to a "media campaign that has been generated to disrupt the country." He said monthly consumption of toilet paper was normally 125 million rolls, but current demand "leads us to think that 40 million more are required." "We will bring in 50 million to show those groups that they won't make us bow down," he said.
That was little comfort to consumers struggling to find bathroom supplies. Several supermarkets in the capital visited Wednesday and Thursday were out of toilet paper. Those that received fresh batches quickly filled up with shoppers, as word spread.
Finance Minister Nelson Merentes said the government was also addressing the lack of foreign currency, which has resulted in suspension of foreign supplies of raw materials, equipment and spare parts to Venezuelan companies, disrupting their production.
Many factories operate at half capacity, because the currency controls make it hard for them to pay for imported parts and materials. Business leaders say some companies verge on bankruptcy because they cannot extend lines of credit with foreign suppliers.
Mr. Merentes said the government had met the U.S. dollar requests of some 1,500 small- and medium-sized companies facing supply problems, and was reviewing requests from a similar number of larger companies.