US sanctions 'suffocating' ordinary Venezuelans

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan shopkeeper Manuel Saavedra says new US sanctions are strangling him -- and lots of other everyday people.

A video game store owner in Caracas, Saavedra has been forced to raise prices as products became harder to import from May 15, when the US Transportation Department suspended passenger and cargo services between the US and Venezuela.

Washington has imposed that and other punishment in hopes of undermining President Nicolas Maduro and helping opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized as interim president by more than 50 countries, force him from power.

But Saavedra says those new sanctions hurt average citizens more than they do the Maduro regime.

"They're suffocating us, ordinary citizens," he said.

"I don't know how long it will last. In any country (sanctions) affect everyone (but) less so those in government."

Air courier companies increased their charges from $3.50 to $4.50 per pound following the latest US sanctions while maritime shipments went from $8 to $10 per cubic meter, says Saavedra.

Packages can no longer be sent directly from the US and must now first pass through Panama or the Dominican Republic in order to circumvent the sanctions.

"That pushes up the costs and means that you sell less," Saavedra told AFP.

- 'Exorbitant' -

It's one of a number of extra hassles facing ordinary Venezuelans as a consequence of US sanctions, such as fuel shortages and sky-high airfares.

Even before that latest embargo, Venezuela's crippling economic crisis weighed heavily on its businesses and citizens.

Five years of recession and inflation which the International Monetary Fund says will reach a staggering 10 million percent this year have taken their toll.

The United Nations says a quarter of the 30-million-strong population is in need of humanitarian aid and 3.3 million people have fled the country since the end of 2015.

Under Maduro's government, Saavedra had already been forced to close one store and reduce his workforce from 14 people to two.

Venezuelans are suffering from a lack of basic necessities such as food and medicines as well as failing public services, including water, electricity and transportation.

The suspension of direct flights to the US has also made it trickier to get there, even via a stopover, as tickets are scarce.

"It's hard to find them and when you do the prices are exorbitant," cardiologist Luis Cressa told AFP.

The 37-year-old frequently needs to travel to the US for work or academic reasons.

But the cost of a flight to Miami has jumped from $600 to $1,200, he says. Because of hyperinflation, the minimum monthly wage is now the equivalent of around $6.50.

Air travel has become increasingly difficult all round, not just because of cost.

Of the 32 airlines registered in 2013, only nine are left, Humberto Figuera, president of the Venezuelan airlines association, told AFP.

- 'Sanctions drive poverty' -

US sanctions had targeted only Maduro and other high-ranking regime officials until 2017 when Washington put a ban on lending money to either the government or state-owned oil company PDVSA.

That cut off Venezuela's access to foreign financing at a time when the South American country already had an external debt of $150 billion and a cash crisis due to its crude production dropping from 3.2 million barrels a day to just one million over the last decade.

That's a crushing blow for a country whose oil exports account for 96 percent of its revenue.

Things got worse in April when US President Donald Trump blocked Venezuela's access to either the US market or dollars.

He also froze the assets of PDVSA's US affiliate Citgo, handing over control of those to Guaido.

But David Smilde, a senior fellow specializing in Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America think-tank, says sanctions are only helping to entrench Maduro in the presidential palace.

"The oil sanctions will drive the population into further poverty, hunger and tragedy and weaken them vis-a-vis the Maduro government and allow the latter to continue in power," he told AFP in April.

The oil embargo is a double-whammy as it also bans sales of diluents to Venezuela, which it needs to process its heavy crude, as well as fuels, leaving a shortage of petrol in the country sitting on the world's largest proven oil reserves.

Venezuela is refining only 100,000 barrels a day, half its demand, meaning it is forced to import the rest.

Those shortages have led to fuel queues that can last up to two days in some remote regions in the country's interior.

"There shouldn't be petrol rationing in an oil country ... this is backwardness," said Ivan Herrera as he waited for hours at a queue in the western city of Barquisimeto.

The government blames the sanctions for these difficulties and Maduro says it has cost the country $30 billion.

But opponents say it is the result of failed policies and corruption on a massive scale.