The new natural.

Venezuela's Silicone Dreams Go Bust

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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First there were the rolling blackouts that randomly darkened Venezuela's streets and turned getting around in this land of 29 million into even more of an adventure. Then it was toilet paper, the chronic absence of which made every trip to the supermarket a goose chase. Flour, eggs, newsprint and blood-pressure medicine followed into the ether, vanishing from store shelves.

And just when the indignities of the Bolivarian Republic seem untoppable, along comes the breast implant crisis. Yes, thanks to the difficulty of importing prosthetic implants, the storied Venezuelan boob job is at risk. Call it the latest casualty of government policy incompetence, which has gutted the currency, the risibly misnamed bolivar fuerte, and sent prices spiraling higher than anywhere in the emerging markets.

The collapsing economy has put a premium on the U.S. dollar, which President Nicolas Maduro has taken on with the autocrat's toolkit -- currency controls, price freezes and constant monkeying with the exchange rate. Importers can no longer get the greenbacks they need, hence the dearth of foreign goods, including quality silicone breast implants.

In lieu of top-shelf brands that carry the seal of approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, surgery clinics are peddling cheap Chinese knockoffs. And since Venezuela boasts one of the world's highest annual rates of breast augmentation procedures, and its legendary beauties see the knife as a shortcut to the Miss Universe podium, that counts as a cultural crisis. Heck, even the country's store mannequins are overstuffed.

The late Hugo Chavez never said the path to "21st century socialism" would be pretty. (He often disparaged spending thousands of dollars on bigger breasts as counterrevolutionary.) And there is so much more than silicone for companeros and companeras to get hot under their halters about.

This is the land that bullet-proofed a suspected international drug trafficker with a diplomatic post, and has dispatched Chavez's favorite daughter, a party girl with a virtually blank resumé, to speak for the country at the world's leading multilateral organization, where Venezuela is closing in on a temporary seat at the United Nations Security Council.

Even when the lights are on, walking the streets of Caracas, the most dangerous capital in the hemisphere, which logged 53 homicides over the weekend, can be hazardous.

Yet instead of addressing the country's deformities, Maduro prefers Bolivarian nip and tuck. The first cut, predictably, is against his critics. The same insane rules that empty the grocery stories and surgery clinics also starve the independent media of imported newsprint, thus smothering dissent by driving newspapers out of business, such as the 110-year-old El Impulso, which just said it was folding. Recently, Maduro threatened to sue a Harvard professor for, ironically, suggesting Venezuela might as well default on its national debt, since it had already welshed on its citizens.

Predictably, word of the endangered boob job fed a ribald round of Internet memes and jokes. Sans silicone, goes one of the tamer ones, women may now be forced to enhance their personalities. But the crisis is telling in a nation where image is all, even when so much is in disarray.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net