Venezuela, where a hamburger is officially $170

Venezuela, where a hamburger is officially $170

A sign reading
A sign reading "No Bread" is displayed at a bakery in Caracas on Feb 25, 2016 as record shortages of basic goods, runaway inflation and an escalating economic crisis cripple businesses. (AFP photo)

CARACAS - If a visitor to Venezuela is unfortunate enough to pay for anything with a foreign credit card, the eye-watering cost might suggest they were in a city pricier than Tokyo or Zurich.

A hamburger sold for 1,700 Venezuelan bolivares is $170, or a 69,000-bolivar hotel room is $6,900 a night, based on the official rate of 10 bolivares for $1.

But of course no merchant is pricing at the official rate imposed under currency controls. It's the black market rate of 1,000 bolivares per dollar that's applied.

But for Venezuelans paid in hyperinflation-hit bolivares, and living in an economy relying on mostly imported goods or raw materials, conditions are unthinkably expensive.

Even for the middle class, most of it sliding into poverty, hamburgers and hotels are out-of-reach excesses.

"Everybody is knocked low," Michael Leal, a 34-year-old manager of an eyewear store in Caracas, told AFP. "We can't breathe."

Shuttered stores

In Chacao, a middle-class neighborhood in the capital, office workers lined up outside a nut store to buy the cheapest lunch they could afford. Nearby restaurants were all but empty.

Superficially it looked like the center of any other major Latin American city: skyscrapers, dense traffic, pedestrians in short sleeves bustling along the sidewalks.

But look closely and you can see the economic malaise. Many stores, particularly those that sold electronics, were shuttered.

"It's horrible now," said Marta Gonzalez, the 69-year-old manager of a corner beauty products store.

"Nobody is buying anything really. Just food," she said as a male customer used a debit card to pay for a couple of razor blades.

A sign above the register said "We don't accept credit cards."

- Lines for necessities -

An upmarket shopping center nearby boasted a leafy rooftop terrace, a spacious Hard Rock cafe, chain stores for Zara, Swarovski and Armani Exchange.

They were all virtually deserted except for bored sales staff.

Instead a line of around 200 people was waiting patiently in front of a pharmacy.

They didn't know what for, exactly, just that the routine now was to line up for daily deliveries of one subsidized personal hygiene product or another -- toothpaste, for instance -- and grab their rationed amount before it ran out, usually within a couple of minutes.

"We do this every week. And we don't know what we're trying to buy," said Kevin Jaimes, a 21-year-old auto parts salesman waiting with his family.

"What's frustrating is when you get into a gigantic line but they run out before you get any."

The alternative then is to turn to black market merchants who sell goods at grossly inflated rates, often 100 times more than the subsidized price tag.

Jaimes lives with his family of seven, and tries to get by on a monthly salary of 35,000 bolivares -- in reality, around $35.

That sum is too paltry for him to even think about dropping into the cinema upstairs in the center, where tickets are 8,800 bolivares.

If somehow he could, he'd find the same sort of entertainment being shown in American multiplexes: "The Jungle Book," "Captain America: Civil War," and "Angry Birds."

But motion pictures and popcorn, while maybe an enticing diversion, are luxuries Venezuelans these days can ill afford.

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