Venezuelans queue for days as historic petrol shortage hits country

Left, a photo by Enrique Rondon Nieto in San Antonio de los Altos (Miranda) on May 28. The image in the centre is a screengrab of a video filmed by Robert Lobo in Caracas on May 20. Right, a screengrab of a video taken by Ray Alvarado in Caracas on May 25.
Left, a photo by Enrique Rondon Nieto in San Antonio de los Altos (Miranda) on May 28. The image in the centre is a screengrab of a video filmed by Robert Lobo in Caracas on May 20. Right, a screengrab of a video taken by Ray Alvarado in Caracas on May 25.

Venezuela is currently experiencing the worst petrol shortage in its history. With residents forced to wait in line for hours or even days to get just a few litres of petrol, some have started buying it on the flourishing black market… If they can afford it. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Venezuelans about how they are coping.

Petrol shortages aren’t new in Venezuela, but the problem has worsened over the past few months. Since mid-March, when the government put in place a lockdown to halt the spread of Covid-19, the capital city Caracas has also been affected by the shortages, even though it was largely spared in the past.

What caused the fuel shortage?

This situation might seem surprising to some as Venezuela has the largest petrol reserves in the world. The problem is that the country only produces 622,000 barrels a day. That’s just a fifth of what it was producing 10 years ago, according to OPEC.  

The drop in petrol production is the result of a deterioration in infrastructure, a lack of investment and corruption. Moreover, the country’s refineries can only process 100,000 barrels a day. In the past, they could process more than a million barrels a day, but quite a number of sites have closed. 

As a result, Venezuela’s consumption of petrol exceeds its production capabilities, which means they have to import. This isn’t new but it is becoming more and more difficult for the country to buy petrol abroad because of American sanctions. The country is also short on cash because of the historic drop in oil prices and the serious economic crisis that has been gripping the country over the past few years. 

Petrol station queues that stretch for kilometres

Recently, the government imposed petrol rationing and most petrol stations in the country have closed. In order to get petrol, people have to go to one of the few open stations and wait in lines that sometimes stretch for kilometres upon kilometres.

"May 20, petrol station on Andrés Bello Avenue in Caracas."


"I had to eat and sleep in my car while I was in line"

Miguel Villavicencio is a journalist in Guanare, in Portuguesa state.


I’ve waited in line for petrol two or three times, each time for two or three days, just to get to 10 to 20 litres. While I was in line, I ate and slept in my car and I had to deal with the heat. There are also risks: it isn’t very safe [Editor’s note: on April 20, two armed men robbed people who were waiting in line for petrol at a station in Caracas. One person sustained a gunshot wound.] Alternatively, you can leave your car with a friend to go and shower, eat and rest a little at home before going back to wait in line. 

We’ve had a petrol problem in our region for a long time. For example, we had to queue back in 2019, sometimes for more than a day. But you were also able to fill up your tank completely and all of the petrol stations were open. These days, you can only get 20 litres maximum and there are only three service stations open in all of Guanare [Editor’s note: which has more than 200,000 residents]. There’s a fourth one that is only open to doctors, farmers and government employees, and they are also limited as to the amount of petrol that they can get.

New rules were put in place a few days ago. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they broadcast a draw on the radio that determines which petrol station you can go fill up at, depending on your license plate. That system has caused a few skirmishes because as soon as people know where they can go, they rush to get there as soon as possible. 

"May 29th: This is how it went down today, after the second raffle for petrol stations in Guanare. Drivers waited in the street for the results to be announced on the radio and then took off as quickly as they could towards the petrol station where they were allowed to go [...]."


Motorcyclists can only go get petrol on Sundays and they aren’t allowed more than three litres. So they often start lining up a day or two in advance. 


“May 23th: motorcyclists line up for petrol in Guanare. Whatever happened to social distancing?” This video, filmed on Saturday, shows motorcyclists queuing to get petrol the next day. 


"To save petrol, I drive slowly and don’t use the AC”

Ana Isabel Dominguez is a doctor in Caracas.


I filled my tank in mid-March and it is still half full because I only use my car when I have to go out for work, once a week or every two weeks. But I drive slowly and I no longer use the air conditioning to save on petrol. 

Doctors can get a special paper so that we can get petrol more easily but you still have to line up the night before in the hopes of getting it around midday the next day. 

"May 25th: Here’s the line to get petrol at the "Texaco" petrol station in Caricuao [in Caracas]. There are motorcyclists and drivers on both sides of the Francisco Fajardo highway [...]." 


"I borrowed my father’s car, which still had half a tank of petrol”

Bernardo Rotundo works in cinema in Caracas.


Together, my wife and I have two cars and we have less than a quarter of a tank left. But since the start of quarantine, we’ve only been going out to buy food so we haven’t tried to go fill our tanks, especially considering the lines…  

I did end up borrowing my dad’s car, which still has half a tank of gas. And my wife gets picked up for work every day in a car belonging to the diplomatic corps because she works for an NGO. They buy their petrol on the black market. 

The petrol black market 

A litre of petrol sells for about $3 (2.70 euros) on the growing black market in the country. That’s a fortune in Venezuela, where the minimum monthly salary is less than $5 (4.50 euros). It’s an especially high amount considering that petrol has been practically free for decades. Multiple Venezuelans who spoke to our team accused security forces of fueling the black market. Authorities arrested soldiers who were taking part in the illegal trade in Zulia state.

To get petrol today [May 28th], I started waiting in line at 3a.m. on Tuesday [May 26th]. They had 150 spots. This was in San Antonio de los Altos [in Miranda state]." 


"I walk"

Dimas lives in Puerto Ordaz, in Bolívar, state. Currently, Dimas is unemployed. 


The petrol shortages started last year here so now there is practically no petrol left. So when I have to go less than five kilometres from my house, I walk. There are a few buses, but not many, and when they go by, they are usually packed. So I don’t want to take the risk [Editor’s note: during the Covid-19 pandemic]. 

All of the Venezuelans who spoke to our team said that public transportation had all disappeared. There are still a few taxis, but their prices have gone up. 

Iranian fuel tankers

Iran sent five fuel tankers to Venezuela, four of which arrived in the country last week. According to the Venezuelan Minister of Petrol, the tankers carried fuel and additives as well as replacement parts and other equipment meant to help improve Venezuela’s ability to produce and refine petrol. These deliveries, which will help momentarily ease the crisis in the country, are occurring in the midst of ratcheting tensions between Tehran and Washington. 

Price increase and end to state monopoly starting on June 1st

These deliveries do come with a price. On May 30, President Nicolás Maduro announced that the price of fuel would increase starting on June 1st. One litre would cost 5,000 bolivars (equivalent to 0.02 euros), versus 0,00006 bolivar (equivalent to less than 0.01 euro) previously. 

He also announced that the 200 petrol stations run by private companies would be allowed to sell petrol at the international price, fixed at “50 cents per litre” (equivalent to 0.45 euro), ending the Venezuelan government’s monopoly on the sale of fuel. 

He also declared that the government would subsidise 100% of public transportation for passengers and goods for the next 90 days. 

Article by Chloé Lauvergnier.