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$755 Condoms Are Not Venezuela's Biggest Problem

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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Chicken, toilet paper, snakebite medicine and now safe sex: The list of privations which the Venezuelans must endure has just gotten longer. With a 36-pack of condoms retailing for $755, or 85 percent of the national monthly minimum wage, as Bloomberg News correspondents Anatoly Kurmanaev and Andrew Rosati reported this week, a tryst in the Bolivarian Republic risks becoming a game of Vatican roulette.

Turning basic necessities into luxuries is a classic trick of command economies, but the condom shortage is a new low even for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the former bus driver who seems determined to run this country of 29 million into a ditch.

Venezuela

This is not just hazardous government, but an object lesson in how to bury a revolution. In 1999, when Hugo Chavez kicked off his plan for "21-st century socialism," he promised to lift the forgotten majority in this mostly poor Andean nation out of "miseria."

Siphoning profits from the national oil company, he converted the windfall from the country's fabulous reserves of crude into fuel for social programs -- missions, in Bolivarian-speak -- for literacy and community health and became the toast of the new Latin American left.

Venezuelans felt the difference at first as child mortality, illiteracy, poverty and inequality all fell. It was the same across Latin America, but no matter. Chavez got to parlay his rising poor into Bolivarian bragging rights, though not for long. Social gains stagnated after 2006, when Chavez's petropopulism failed to sustain the economy. Spiking prices, vanishing consumer goods and the oil bust finished the job.

Now miseria is on the rise again. It turns out that many of Chavismo's triumphs were an optical illusion. While poverty fell slightly in 12 Latin countries from 2011 to 2013, it jumped 6.7 percent in Venezuela, according to a report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

A new survey of 1,500 households by three national universities shows that 48.4 percent of Venezuelans were living poor in 2014, up from 45 percent in 1998.

"The question is not whether you experience social gains, but what's behind them," Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales told me. "It's pretty clear now that Venezuela's social advances owed mostly to external factors. And considering how much money the government pumped into its social programs, the return was considerably less than what one could have expected."

Public health is one of the victims. Not that Venezuela is short of doctors. The country boasts 2.7 physicians for every 1,000 inhabitants, better than twice that of Chile, Colombia and Peru, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. But that's because of the tens of thousands of Cuban doctors deployed on the cheap to Venezuela in a swap for oil.

Meantime, native physicians are fleeing in droves, sometimes "an entire graduating classes at a time," according to the Caracas daily El Universal. Hospitals, clinics, and surgical centers are shutting down, while basic medications are disappearing. A cancer hospital born 40 years ago but never completed is now a squatters home.  No wonder the Nurses College of Caracas recently asked the authorities to declare a national health emergency. Maduro's response? Arrest the owner of a pharmacy chain for waging "economic warfare."

AIDS patients are already under siege. Venezuela has the fourth-highest number of people living with AIDS in Latin America, yet its spending on treatment and prevention dropped from $109 million to $80 million from 2010 to 2011, according to the latest UN report. The report showed that AIDS was just as prevalent among 14 to 49-year-olds (0.6 percent infected) in 2012 as it was in 2001. With foreign exchange controls tightening, patient advocates say that government has all but stopped handing out imported condoms.

The Bolivarian government once took pride in reaching out to victims of HIV and AIDS. Following UN protocols, it gave away condoms and since 1998 treated patients with anti-retroviral drugs free of charge. The infection rate dropped steadily "reflecting quicker diagnosis and better treatment," reported the Economist Intelligence Unit last year.  Now those achievements may become the revolution's next vanishing act. 

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:
Maria Lamagna at mlamagna@bloomberg.net