Venezuelans who already must line up for hours to buy chicken, sugar, medicines and other basic products in short supply now face a new indignity: Condoms are hard to find and nearly impossible to afford.
“The country is so messed up that now we have to wait in line even to have sex,” lamented Jonatan Montilla, a 31-year-old advertising company art director. “This is a new low.”
A collapse in oil prices has deepened shortages of consumer products from diapers to deodorant in the OPEC country that imports most of what it consumes, with crude exports accounting for about 95 percent of its foreign currency earnings. As the price the country receives for its oil exports fell 60 percent in the past seven months, the economy is being pushed to the brink with a three-in-four chance of default in the next 12 months if oil prices don’t recover.
The impact of reduced access to contraceptives is far graver than frustration over failed hookups. Venezuela has one of South America’s highest rates of HIV infection and teenage pregnancy. Abortion is illegal.
“Without condoms we can’t do anything,” Jhonatan Rodríguez, general director at the not-for-profit health group StopVIH, said by phone Jan. 28 from Venezuela’s Margarita Island. “This shortage threatens all the prevention programs we have been working on across the country.”
The condom shortage, caused by a scarcity of dollars among importers, has prices on a website used to find scarce goods soaring and risks aggravating one of South America’s highest HIV infection and teenage pregnancy rates.
Condoms and other contraceptives disappeared from many Venezuelan pharmacies and clinics starting in late December, as the government tightened dollar disbursements amid sliding oil revenue, according to the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation. No condoms were available in 10 eastern and central Caracas pharmacies visited in late January, compared with as many as 20 different kinds available at some locations in November, including Reckitt Benckiser Group plc’s Durex and Church & Dwight Co.’s Trojan brands.
Venezuela had the third-fastest rate of HIV infections per capita in South America, after Paraguay and Brazil in 2013, United Nations data shows. The country also has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies on the continent after Guyana, at 83 per 1,000, according to 2012 data from the World Bank. This compares to just 4 per 1,000 in Germany and 31 in the U.S.
On the auction website MercadoLibre, used by Venezuelans to obtain scarce goods, a 36-pack of Trojans sells for 4,760 bolivars ($755 at the official exchange rate), close to the country’s minimum monthly wage of 5,600 bolivars. At the unofficial black-market rate used by people with access to dollars, the cost is about $25, compared to $21 in the U.S.
A two-thirds drop in the value of Venezuelan oil since June has brought the country to the brink of a debt default, according to prices in the swaps market. Instead of cutting social spending, President Nicolás Maduro has responded to lower revenue by slashing imports.
This year Venezuela will import 42 percent less than in 2012 in dollar terms, according to Bank of America Corp. estimates.
Shortages of everything from flour to heart medicine have spiked since December. Hundreds of people line up outside Caracas supermarkets at delivery times to buy food or household products at subsidized prices. Protests against Maduro’s handling of shortages, inflation and crime left 43 people dead last year.
In Venezuela, with abortion illegal, the disappearance of contraceptives will raise the number of female deaths by driving more pregnant women to clandestine clinics, said Carlos Cabrera, vice president of the local branch of London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation. A lack of condoms will also leave a long-lasting economic impact by taking girls and young women away from schools and the work force, he said.
“An unwanted teenage pregnancy is a mark of government’s failure: failure of its economic, public health and educational policy,” said Cabrera, a practicing gynecologist in Caracas.
In the town of Los Teques on the outskirts of Caracas, Ramo Verde pharmacy manager Katherine Muñóz stood by a contraceptive shelf filled with Asian-made condoms. No Durex or Duo, a Beiersdorf AG product, have arrived in her shop since October, with stocks depleting last month, she said, adding that customers “don’t trust” the brands she has left.
“People ask me whether I have used them myself and can recommend them,” Muñóz said. “I can’t say I have.”
Supplies of birth control and emergency contraceptive pills as well as anti-retroviral drugs for HIV patients are also at critically low levels, according to IPPF and StopVIH.
Durex imports to Venezuela have collapsed “because of the political situation the country is going through,” Reckitt Benckiser spokeswoman Priscilla Sotela said in an emailed response to questions. Church & Dwight didn’t respond to an email and phone calls seeking comment.
Maduro promised in 2013 to build a network of condom factories to protect Venezuela’s youth from the effects of “capitalist pornography.”
‘Ears grow hot’
“When the ears grow hot and nothing can wait, and everything must happen now or the world will end — that’s when you end up with a tremendous belly at 14 or 15 years of age,” he said in a televised address in June 2013. “This can’t be.”
None of the factories have been completed, according to the pharmaceutical federation President Freddy Ceballos.
Officials at Venezuela’s Health Ministry didn’t respond to emails and phone calls from Bloomberg News seeking comment on contraceptive shortages.
“I ran out yesterday. Now, there’s next to nothing, and what you find is really expensive,” said Montilla, the advertising company art director. “You can’t take any risks.”
To get contraceptives in the capital, residents can still go to one of three family-planning centers run by IPPF subsidiary PlaFam, where in late January condoms were sold freely for 3 bolivars a piece.
“This is all there is,” said pharmacist Carlos Hernández as he handed out the last two condoms available in the dispensary of the University Hospital of Caracas on Jan. 29. “Who knows when we will get more.”
© 2015, Bloomberg News