A closed gas station in the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela.
CNN  — 

For many Venezuelans, oil is a birthright in the country blessed with the largest crude reserves in the world. Despite wild hyperinflation, Venezuela’s government has never increased the price of gasoline. Today, amid a crushing economic crisis, filling up a tank in Venezuela is still basically free – but only if you can afford to wait for days in line.

Over the last two weeks, people from several states in Venezuela have described severe gas shortages. It’s not the first time that the country has suffered gas shortages, but previous crises were blamed on bad distribution and logistical inefficiency. This time, as citizens find themselves queuing for days at the gas stations, many are starting to fear there simply is not enough oil for all.

Caracas is still fueled by a steady supply, which critics of the embattled President Nicolas Maduro describe as politically motivated favoritism: Keeping the capital well supplied helps prevent further anti-government protests, after months of violent unrest.

But in the western city of San Cristobal del Tachira, Lorena Amaya, 42, spent three days sleeping in her car with her sister, as they waited in line to fill the tank with gas. The two sisters parked their vehicles one in front of the other and placed a mattress in the first one to create a bed.

“Today, it’s my son’s birthday, and look where am I,” she told CNN. She only briefly left the gas queue to visit her 10-year-old son that morning, while her sister held the spot.

“I ask the neighbor to keep an eye for him while I am here, but he’s home by himself,” she said.

Her sister Ymara, 40, describes the fuel as “the most expensive gasoline we ever bought” because of the three days of lost work and life that she has spent waiting in line.

How this happened

In 1989, large riots hit Caracas after the government of then-president Carlos Andres Perez announced the end of a gasoline subsidy which had maintained the prices well beneath market level. Since then, increasing the price of oil has become taboo for Venezuelan politicians.

Thirty years later, and after five years of deep economic crisis under Maduro, oil is still cheap, but production has dropped to levels unseen since the 1940s. In April 2019, Venezuela only produced 830,000 barrels per day, down from 1.2 million at the beginning of the year, according to new data from the United States’ Energy Information Administration.

State oil company PDVSA is struggling to keep production afloat. Most of its machinery is obsolete and its production facilities under-resourced. Since March, waves of blackouts have only made the situation worse.

PDVSA does not publish production figures, so it is impossible to know exactly how much oil the country actually produces. However, shipments from key international allies such as Russia have increased this year, suggesting that the oil company is supplementing its dwindling production with foreign supply.

Maduro’s government has blamed the production crisis on corruption by former managers and the increasingly painful sanctions from the United States. Since the US sanctioned PDVSA in January 2019, the company has been unable to plug into the international oil market, where it buys ingredients needed to refine its thick, heavy crude into gasoline.

Venezuela’s Ombusdman, Alfredo Ruiz Angulo, has said that he intends to denounce US sanctions as human rights violations, saying “All these unilateral coercive measures led by the United States are causing real trouble for the health of Venezuelans.”

For the opposition, however, the shortages are proof of Maduro’s inability to run the country sustainably. On social media, the hashtag campaign #VenezuelaSinGasolina has attacked the government for failing to maintain the country’s most prized industry. “The solution to get out of this mess is for Maduro to go,” said Miguel Pizarro, a leading opposition congressman in a statement to CNN.

The shortages are also compounding Venezuela’s already dire food insecurity. Venezuela doesn’t have a rail system, and most of its largest cities are far away from the coast; without petrol, food supplies cannot be moved from city to city. On May 20, the country’s Federation of Cattle Ranchers issued a public plea for fuel to the government, citing their difficulty in moving the cattle across the country.