LA VICTORIA, Venezuela (USA TODAY)- Soraida Gil says she can live without coffee but draws the line at toilet paper.
Gil, a 43-year-old Venezuelan housewife, spent two days looking for toilet paper in this city of 150,000 in the central state of Aragua. She found paper towels and napkins but no toilet paper.
"Call me a counterrevolutionary but there are certain things that are essential and toilet paper is one of them," she says, staring at the bare shelves where toilet tissue used to be stocked at the Morichal supermarket, one of the city's largest. "What do they expect us to use? Banana leaves?"
Venezuelans have grown accustomed to food shortages over the past decade as the result of the country's foreign exchange and price controls. Milk, butter, tooth paste, margarine, cooking oil, coffee, sugar, soap, cornmeal and wheat flour periodically disappear, setting off wild scrambles when they re-emerge.
But the lack of toilet paper has become the proverbial last straw for many in this country where per capita spending on personal care products is among the highest in Latin America.
"How low can this so-called revolution take us when we are forced to scrounge around for toilet paper?" says Ricardo Alvaredo, a 30-year-old unemployed caterer. "They are destroying the country with their policies."
The shortage of toilet paper led Venezuela's socialist government to announce earlier this week that it would import up to 50 million rolls to pad supplies. The state news agency quoted Commerce Minister Alejandro Fleming as saying the shortage was due to "excessive demand" as part of a media campaign to destabilize the country.
Flemings' accusations were echoed by National Assembly Deputy Andres Mendez, a member of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela, who blamed product shortages on opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Mendez said the two were conspiring to keep local supermarket shelves empty by encouraging Colombian companies not to sell their products to Venezuela.
Maduro edged out Capriles in April in a closer than expected race for the presidency to fill the unexpired term of the late President Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in March. Capriles is contesting the results before the country's Supreme Court, charging that fraud and ballot box stuffing cost him victory.
Politics aside, most analysts agree that it's the government's own policies that have led to the current crisis.
"Venezuela's shortages are the results of its foreign exchange and price control systems,'' said Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group. "And the government is starting to realize that the shortages and inflation are costing them politically."
Chavez imposed price and foreign exchange controls during a 2002-2003 nationwide strike. As part of plan, prices of basic foodstuffs and personal hygiene items were fixed to them accessible to the poor, while access to dollars was strictly limited to limit capital flight.
Both policies have caused havoc.
Price controls have meant that the prices of many items are below the actual cost of production, leading companies to cut back on the production of controlled goods or cease producing them altogether. Foreign exchange controls have meant that many importers can't receive hard currency to import raw materials or finished products, further exacerbating shortages. Venezuela imports 70% of the products it consumes.
Analyst estimate that Venezuelan companies are currently waiting for at least $10 billion in hard currency from the country's Central Bank so they can import needed goods.
No one seems to know why Venezuela, which has the world's largest oil reserves, hasn't made the money available. One theory is that the country's economic leaders want to preserve international reserves, especially in the wake of three elections in the last seven months which led to excessive government spending to gain support.
That has led to lengthy delays in imports.
"Our supplier used to deliver 1,300 sacks of animal feed a week," says Roberto Flores, who owns an animal feed store outside La Victoria. "Now they are delivering only 300 a week. They told us that they have no corn, as the government hasn't given them any import licenses. And their inventories are running down."
At least one Venezuelan animal feed producer -- Proagro - took full page advertisements in the country's newspapers warning that it was running low on corn and other materials, which was leading it to cull its flocks of hens and broiler chicks.
Not surprisingly, prices of poultry products have soared, with eggs more than doubling in less than two months.
Maduro, leery of hurting the country's poor who make up his main support, has taken small steps to end shortages. Earlier this week, he held talks with Empresas Polar, the country's largest privately owned company, to find ways for local producers to boost output.
He also raised prices on beef, poultry, milk and cheese, saying that higher prices would encourage more production. But that angers the Venezuelans used to getting handouts and subsidized goods - methods Chavez used to hold onto support for his regime.
"The problem is that the price increase was 20%, and inflation is now around 30%," said Grais-Targow. "They can also say that they are going to make more dollars available but they have to follow through."
Maduro's weakened political position also is seemingly making it difficult for him to make decisions, as he doesn't want to offend hardliners in his government, including Planning Minister Jorge Giordani. That does not help his popularity with consumers.
"With all of the shortages, who has time to think about politics?" says Raul Hernandez, a 31-year-old bank teller. "Maybe that is their plan. Keep up occupied with finding toilet paper and milk while they take more and more control of the country."