Motorists in socialist Venezuela have long enjoyed the world’s cheapest gasoline, with fuel so heavily subsidized that a full tank these days costs a tiny fraction of a U.S. penny.
But the economy is in such shambles that drivers are now paying for fill-ups with a little food, a candy bar or just a cigarette.
Bartering at the pump has taken off as hyperinflation makes Venezuela’s paper currency, the bolivar, hard to find and renders some denominations all but worthless, so that nobody will accept them.
Without cash in their wallets, drivers often hand gas station attendants a bag of rice, cooking oil or whatever is within reach.
“You can pay with a cigarette,” said Orlando Molina, filling up his subcompact Ford in Caracas. “Heck, it’s no secret to anyone that it goes for nothing.”
Gas is so dirt-cheap that station attendants don’t even know the price. Empty handed drivers get waved through, paying nothing at all.
This barter system, while perhaps the envy of cash-strapped drivers outside the country, is just another symptom of bedlam in Venezuela.
The South American nation of roughly 30 million people is gripped by a deepening political and economic crisis. People live with a nagging feeling that anything from violent street protests to a massive power failure could throw their lives into chaos at any moment.
More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, escaping low wages, broken hospitals, failing basic services and lack of security.
The International Monetary Fund says inflation is expected to hit a staggering 200,000 percent this year. Venezuela dropped five zeros from its currency last year in a futile attempt to keep up with inflation. Soaring prices quickly devoured the new denominations.
The smallest bill in circulation, 50 bolivars, is worth about a quarter of a U.S. penny. City buses and even banks don’t accept it, arguing it would take such a thick wad of bills to pay for even the most modest items that it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. The largest bill, 50,000 bolivars, equals $2.50.