A woman sells Polar brewery beer at a bar in Caracas
Caracas - Arab Today
It was hot, and Carlos Dapen had spent several hours looking for a pharmacy that had his wife's medication, which has become as scarce as most groceries in crisis-hit Venezuela.
All he wanted now was a nice cold beer.
The 53-year-old accountant went into a bar in the Chacao neighborhood in Caracas and spoke the classic line: "Gimme a cold one."
But that is easier said than done in Venezuela, where the largest brewery in the country suspended production last week because of a barley shortage, and where rolling power outages in many places are shutting off refrigerators for four hours a day.
Polar Breweries, the company, has already stopped deliveries, and bars in the capital are starting to run out of stock.
Dapen was in luck: The owner and bartender, Ines Berna, still had a few Soleras -- one of the five brands made by Polar, which supplies 80 percent of the domestic beer consumed in Venezuela.
The weary accountant took it, but he wasn't exactly beaming.
"They used to have everything here, whatever kind (of beer) you wanted," he said. "Seeing the country like this depresses me, man."
Oil-dependent Venezuela has sunk ever deeper into economic crisis as global crude prices have collapsed in the past two years.
As the dollars the country relies on to pay for imports have dried up, supermarket shelves have gone increasingly bare and prices have gone through the roof -- rising 180 percent last year, according to the government, which private analysts accuse of under-reporting the figure.
The government runs a complicated, multitiered system of foreign exchange controls, and businesses complain they cannot get the dollars they need to import products and raw materials.
That includes Polar, which says it has run out of barley at its four plants.
The brewery is part of the largest food and beverage company in Venezuela, the Polar Group, which makes a panoply of products including snacks, condiments, ice cream, soda and the corn flour used in arepas, the national dish.
President Nicolas Maduro, who inherited late leader Hugo Chavez's socialist economic model just as it started to truly sour, accuses wealthy elites like Polar's chief executive, billionaire businessman Lorenzo Mendoza, of waging an "economic war" on his embattled administration.
But Polar says the government's policies have left it no choice but to halt beer production and suspend 10,000 employees.
- Expensive drink -
The beer drought is further dampening night life in Caracas, where a de facto curfew already reigns because of violent crime fueled in part by the crisis.
Venezuela, one of the most violent countries in the world, registered more than 50 murders a day in the first quarter of the year.
In Pajaritos, a hardscrabble neighborhood tucked into the hills of Caracas, the usually lively main street, which is packed with small bars, was nearly empty.
Just one bar still had Polar Pilsen, the local brand of choice.
"The last 10 boxes were delivered two weeks ago," said Jose, an employee at one establishment.
"We'll have to drink whatever we can get," said patron Avilio Macias, 53, sipping on a Polar Light -- which soon ran out.
Scarcity has driven up the price of a bottle of beer by more than 40 percent in the past two weeks, and more than 400 percent in the past year.
When beer runs out, many bar patrons turn to Venezuelan rum, which is among the best in the world. But a single drink costs twice as much as a beer.
"You used to be able to get trashed for 100 bolivars," 63-year-old bar patron Rafael Rodriguez said wistfully.
And Venezuelans love their beer: the country is the largest beer consumer in South America and 24th in the world, according to research by the Kirin beverage group in Japan. Per capita, Venezuelans consumed 70 liters (18 gallons) in 2014.
With the opposition battling to oust Maduro in a recall referendum, the president's camp has tried to downplay the situation.
"The Venezuelan people aren't going to die because there's no beer," said the president's right-hand man, Diosdado Cabello.