Venezuela's newspapers running out of newsprint

| Sept. 22, 2013 | Caracas, Venezuela

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As many of the world’s newspapers decry plunging readership and advertising revenue, editors in Venezuela are struggling with a much more fundamental problem: The country is running out of newsprint.

Thanks to the South American nation’s currency controls, enacted by former President Hugo Chávez a decade ago, the country has an extremely short supply of US dollars. This means that editors and importers are unable to obtain the hard currency required to pay for newsprint manufactured abroad.

In the western city of El Tigre, Antonio Briceño has edited La Antorcha for four decades. "This city has grown up around this newspaper," he told me. "But the problem is getting worse every day. The business is now unsustainable."

More than half of the country's local press is within weeks of going out of print, according to numerous editors and industry leaders I spoke to across the country.

At least five outlets have already shut down. Briceño has around 30 days' supply left, more than many of his colleagues across the country.

"We're going to see a blackout of the local press," he warned.

The demand for greenbacks is extremely high in Venezuela, demonstrated by a black market exchange for hard currency on which dollars sell at six times their official government-set value.

Coupled with annual inflation of more than 45%, people earning in local currency here have long suffered. This is despite Venezuela sitting on top of the world's highest oil reserves.

"We're in this paradox of having a wealthy country, rich in resources, that's so badly managed that we can't get dollars," Briceño added.

The currency controls were enacted in 2003 to combat capital flight. In recent months, the supply of dollars has dropped dramatically, pushing the black market rate up every day. Chávez’s economic policies continue to haunt the country six months after his death in March.

And it is not only newsprint that is lacking. Cooking oil, milk, chicken and other staples are often in short supply at supermarkets. Earlier this year, a lack of toilet paper here made international headlines prompting Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, to blame the shortages on a "conspiracy" by the wealthy.

Critics here believe that the lack of newsprint may have more sinister motives than simple supply-and-demand economics.

"It's political," Tinedo Guía, president of the National College of Journalists, told me. "It's a means of silencing the political opposition."

Long before Chávez came to power in 1999, the government of former president Jaime Lusinchi in the late 1980s was infamous for allowing goods to supporters and denying them to opponents. The economic crisis during that period helped the rise in popularity over the following decade of Chávez himself.

But now his supporters are being accused of it.

"The government itself runs lots of newspapers; they all have paper," Rogelio Díaz, leader of the Regional Press Organization, told me.

To bring in newsprint, importers must obtain a document that demonstrates a requirement for dollars to import products that are not locally produced. The Ministry for Commerce is currently denying this certificate to many editors and importers.

To then obtain the dollars, importers must deal with the government's Commission for the Administration of Currency Exchange (CADIVI), a bureaucratic behemoth that sets strict limits on Venezuelans' access to hard currency at the official, and low, exchange rates.

Venezuelans have long suffered from the economic policy — though some have of course turned it to their advantage. It seems that now, they won’t even be able to read about it.

For World Report, this is Girish Gupta in Caracas