They want the real deal.

Photographer: Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images

Barbie Takes Venezuela

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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The keepers of "21st-Century Socialism" in Venezuela have been trying to hold capitalism and consumerism at bay since left-wing populist Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999. Now, they appear to have met their match. Blonde and svelte, standing about 11.5 inches tall, she's found her way into Venezuelan hearts and minds -- and soon enough, under their Christmas trees as well.

Officially, the run on Barbie dolls comes with the Venezuelan government's blessings. She's in a grab bag of imported items that President Nicolas Maduro has decided to subsidize to brighten the yuletide of hard-working Bolivarians.

Just a couple months ago, a garden-variety Barbie retailed at around $200 in Venezuelan shops. With the government subsidy, she can be had for about $2.50 -- as long as supplies last, anyway.

Welcome to Operation "Merry Christmas," Maduro's year-end nod to Saint Nick after having played the Grinch for the rest of the year. With hard currency in short supply and price freezes emptying supermarkets, ordinary shopping has become a treasure hunt, driving many consumers to the black market street stalls. So barren are the store shelves, the Central Bank even stopped printing its scarcity index, which measures the difficulty of obtaining consumer goods.

Adding sugar plums to life's bitter bowl is just good old populist demagoguery. Last year, Maduro even changed the calendar so that Venezuelans could receive an advance bonus and celebrate an early Christmas.

But Barbie?  Chavez built his reputation on dissing precisely the sort of mass market fetishism embodied in this petite yanqui doll.

He railed against the country's beauty fixation, which drives one of the world's biggest markets for cosmetic surgery and induces 15-year-olds to implant "airbags," and he even specifically singled out "Western-imposed consumerist icons such as Barbie dolls."

In 2007, he dedicated his Sunday live broadcast talkathon, Alo Presidente, to slamming the Barbie obsession and called upon self-respecting Venezuelans to launch an "indigenous" version of Mattel's capitalist toy.

What would the Comandante say now? Successfully campaigning for socialism in 21st-century Latin America, with its glittering shopping malls, tech-savvy consumers and glitzy telenovelas, was never going to be easy. Chavez's gift was to use his antic charm to sell sacrifice as a mortgage on a plenteous revolutionary future.

Lacking Chavez's Machiavellian skills, Maduro has resorted to bursts of policy exotica, like the airport "breathing tax" or forcing supermarkets to install biometric sensors to ration groceries. Operation Barbie is just the latest attempt to buy some joy.  

Never mind that the season's greetings may sour when the stores run out of their cut-rate Barbies. You can rest assured that somewhere out there is an enterprising eight-year-old Venezuelan with calculator in hand and a weather eye on the black market.

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