A sign reading "No Bread" is displayed at a bakery in Caracas on February 25, 2016 as record shortages of basic goods, runaway inflation and an escalating economic crisis cripple businessesA sign reading "No Bread" is displayed at a bakery in Caracas on February 25, 2016 as record shortages of basic goods, runaway inflation and an escalating economic crisis cripple businesses (AFP Photo/Federico Parra)
Caracas (AFP) - At a popular east Caracas bakery, customers can buy Spanish olive oil, Italian tomato sauce and even American chocolates. But bread? Forget it.
Cardboard signs on the door warning of "No bread" have become increasingly common at Venezuelan bakeries.
Venezuela gets 96 percent of its foreign currency from oil exports, and as crude prices have plunged, so have the country's imports -- among them wheat.
The leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro has tightly controlled access to hard currency, and this has affected imports ranging from medicine to toilet paper. Now it is seriously affecting imports of wheat, which Venezuela does not grow.
Add to this the soaring inflation rate -- 181 percent in 2015, the world's highest -- and you see why customers are mainly interested in buying basic food items such as bread.
The few bakeries that can still get a hold of a 50-kilogram (110-pound) sack of flour to make bread limit their sales to just two "canillas" -- thin half-baguettes -- per person three times a day.
Customers line up for bread in the morning, at noon and in the evening.
"Our ovens are off," baker Freddy Vilet told AFP.
His store has crackers, sausages and ham for sale, but no bread. He doesn't even have hamburger or hot dog bread.
Rosa Perez, who manages a bakery in the tony Chacao district, said that her store is working at about 30 percent capacity.
"With the little flour that we have, we make cachitos (bread filled with ham and cheese) and pizzas. We sell them at a higher price and that helps compensate our losses," she said.
- Wheat mills closed -
Venezuela appears to have reached a critical point in its flour shortage.
"We are truly worried about the wheat mills being paralyzed," Federation of Flour Workers chief Juan Crespo said.
Five of Venezuela's 12 wheat mills, which employ some 12,000 people, have closed, Crespo said. The remaining mills employ another 8,000 people.
An industrialist who requested anonymity said there is currently "only enough wheat for the next 12 days."
He said he was happy that the government is looking into making more hard currency available and possibly approving new shipments.
The government is sending state-bought consumables "so that industries do not close down, but the lack of foreign currency will impact the food inventories," he said.
The government recently announced that 170,000 tons of wheat would arrive in March, enough to cover demand for one month and guarantee inventory for another 30 days.
- Who to blame? -
After visiting four bakeries in a quest to buy two "canillas," an angry 71-year-old Francesco Angelastro declared that buying bread has become an "ordeal."
In Catia, west of Caracas, the 4F bakery -- a reference to the late ex-president Hugo Chavez's February 4, 1992 attempted coup -- sells state-subsidized bread.
But customers complain that the prices have just gone up, and are closer to prices found in privately-run bakeries.
For Luis Rondon, 86, who has been in a bread line for two hours in his quest to buy two loaves of rustic bread, the culprits are the rich businessmen.
He blames President Nicolas Maduro for the scarcity and rising prices "for not setting the businessmen straight."
As a Ministry of Food truck unloads sacks of flour at a state-run bakery, 62 year-old Diego Morillo wonders why the private bakers don't complain more.
"Because they sell more and earn well through speculation," he answered.
But Jesus Masco, who manages a bakery with 20 employees, says that customers "have no idea" of the difficulties bakers face to remain in business.
He said he used to have a quota of 100 sacks of flour a month.
"But two years ago, the deliveries began to decrease, and now we get 30 sacks if we're lucky," he said.
Perez, at the Chacao bakery, is afraid of being out of a job if the promised wheat imports don't arrive.
She survives selling whatever she can, but customers seem interested only in the basics.
"We're going to sing happy birthday to these bottles of olive oil," Perez said.
"They've been on the shelf for two years and nobody is interested in buying them."