Venezuela’s Coffee Conundrum

“Café!” yells one of Caracas’s many coffee vendors. It’s still here. But residents who want the brew at home are out of luck: coffee and other basic foods are off of some local grocery shelves.

A North American coming to Caracas is liable to think there’s a coffee shortage in the best of times. To those who are accustomed to a 12 oz. “tall” cup of joe being the smallest available size, the immensely popular Venezuelan cafecito, smaller than your average shot of tequila, seems an anomaly. But these coffees, which cost Bs 300—about 15 cents—are, for many Venezuelans of all income levels, a daily treat.

Or, rather, they have been. But some see the ongoing dispute between the Venezuelan government and coffee retailers as a threat to their morning ritual. In December, protests by coffee farmers had led the government increase the price of raw coffee beans approximately two-fold, but not the corresponding retail value, leaving coffee processors saying that they would be forced to sell at a loss.

Instead of doing that, the coffee processors decided, they would withhold the coffee in protest of what they considered to be unfair government controls. A month later, after National Guard raids of coffee warehouses and a presidential threat of coffee industry nationalization, the government is reported to be considering raising coffee retail prices in the coming days.

In the meantime, however, many Caraqueños (as Caracas residents are called) don’t seem to be having a problem getting their daily coffee fix. Coffee beans are no longer available in almost any supermarket, but cafés still sell the brew and vendors still greet morning commuters with the welcomed call of “Café!” And, for the most part, prices to consumers haven’t changed.

Which means, as coffee has disappeared from the supermarket shelves and a black market has developed, street vendors, like Antonio Marine, are taking a hit. “We have to look around more and have to pay a bit more,” said Antonio Marine, who runs a cell phone and coffee table in Bellas Artes, a vibrant cultural and business district near the city center. But he didn’t seem unduly concerned. “I’d guess [the coffee shortages] will be resolved within 15 days,” he added.

For others, the situation has been more dire. “I’ve lost about a quarter of my income this month because of the coffee problem,” said José Cedeño, who spends his days carrying three thermoses full of coffee up and down an overcrowded street in the city center. “Some of us are charging more, but I charge the same,” he added, as a customer passed him Bs 300 for a cafecito.

Angela Gonzalez, who sells coffee, empanadas, and newspapers outside of the Parque del Este metro stop, in the elite Palos Grandes neighborhood, echoed his comments. “I’ll tell you the truth, I sell a lot more coffee than empanadas,” she said. “I’ve lost a lot of money, the situation is very bad.” The street price of coffee beans, she added, had almost tripled in the past month, and she was considering raising the sale price of coffee. “I can’t find sugar or black beans either,” she said.

Her complaint about the difficulty of finding basic food items that are subject to price controls is a common one. While it is not unusual for supermarket to run out of basic foodstuffs for one or two days in Caracas, some say the situation is getting worse. And it’s hitting poorer areas harder.

“We’ve got a little sugar. There’s no milk, no coffee, no black beans. Look,” said Jorge Puentes, manager of a small grocery store in the low-income barrio of La Bandera, gesturing to a half empty shelf. “We’re almost out of margarine. For two years, this has been more or less normal, things don’t work well with food here.”

Outside, Carmen Perez, who was selling lunches at a stand and said she worked at a café at night, had a different impression. “This hasn’t happened before,” she said.

In another low-income barrio, the situation was largely the same. A stretch of stores were out of sugar, black beans, coffee and powdered milk. Carmen Jimenez, selling spices on the street, and her pre-teen daughter argued about whether or not powdered milk was available. It was, her daughter insisted, talking about a store she had found it at several blocks away. It was the wrong kind, replied her mother.

Some grocery stores located in rich areas, with the exception of coffee, appeared to be fully stocked. The high end Excelsior Gama Plus was only missing coffee, and, according to the customer service desk, had been out of that for less than a week. A store representative said such shortages were normal.

At Cada, sitting between a weight loss center and a maternity shop, in the wealthy Las Mercedes neighborhood, had been out of coffee for a month, according to manager Daniel Rodriguez. “We’ve had no other problems,” he asserted, despite the lack of sugar on the shelves. “We’ll have it out later today.”

However, Jesús Santander, manager of Automercados Plaza’s, a grocery store in an upscale mall in Altamira, said his store was having problems. “We’ve been out of coffee for a month and out of sugar and powdered milk for 20 days,” he said. “All this year, it’s been the same problem with powdered milk, but this is the first time this has happened [with sugar and coffee]…This type of thing has happened before, but now it’s worse.”

Discontent over food shortages stands in sharp contrast to the government’s normally popular food policies. Mercal, a government subsidized food program is Venezuela’s most popular social mission and serves approximately 46 percent of the population, according to a Datanalisis poll. According to some analysts, it’s likely had a significant impact lowering poverty. But it, too, is suffering from the shortages. A store in the city center was out of coffee, sugar, and Mercal chicken, which is less expensive than other brands.

But, while access to price-controlled food appears to be a city-wide problem, everything is still available to those who can pay, just as it was before the government’s pricing policies. 

“They’re selling sugar in a grocery store near my house. I’ll buy it there,” said Mercal customer Thomasita Baamonde. She said a bag of sugar, which is Bs 700 at the Mercal, cost Bs 1,300 the other supermarket.

But others, like Dewin Peña, a fish vendor in Catia, and his friend Jackson Gabidia aren’t able to buy themselves out of the situation. “We don’t drink coffee now,” Peña replied, when asked what they were doing about the coffee shortage.

Echoing his sentiments, Perez, the vendor in La Bandara said, “There’s nothing to do. We’re waiting for [the missing foods] to come.”