NOEL KING, HOST:
Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world - almost 300 billion barrels of oil lie beneath its territory. But Venezuela is running out of gasoline. As John Otis reports, the shortages have led to epic lines for gas.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Scores of vehicles line up outside a gas station in Villa del Rosario, an agricultural town near Venezuela's northwest border with Colombia. Henry Ojeda, who owns a Chevy Silverado pickup, needs fuel to get to his dairy farm. He's been in the queue for five days.
HENRY OJEDA: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: Ojeda says he's been sleeping overnight in his pickup to prevent thieves from stealing the little gas he has left in his tank. Every so often, the line starts to move. Ojeda drives forward five or 10 yards, then gets out to wait some more. A few motorists hang hammocks. Some sip from bottles of rum.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: Others break out folding tables and play dominoes, a favorite pastime in gas lines. Farther ahead at the filling station, the scene is tense.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: National Guard troops try to keep order among desperate drivers. Due to nationwide electricity shortages, power is being rationed. Within the next hour or so, the lights will go out, and there will be no way to pump gas. All of this is making life tougher in a nation already afflicted with hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine; critics blame the collapse on government corruption and mismanagement. Venezuela's first major oil deposits were discovered here in western Venezuela more than a hundred years ago. But now signs of the industry's decay are everywhere.
YEANI RODRIGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: Not far from view Villa del Rosario, local residents walk me through an abandoned oil field. A small amount of thick black oil still oozes from the ground. But all four of the derricks here have been paralyzed for the past two years, says Yeani Rodriguez, who lives in a shack near the oil field.
RODRIGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: "Look at the wealth that we have," he says, "and yet we have nothing." Another problem is U.S. sanctions on President Nicolas Maduro's authoritarian regime. The sanctions make it harder for Venezuela to import the chemicals it needs to produce gasoline. The nation's refineries, in turn, often break down due to a lack of maintenance and spare parts, says Venezuelan economist Jose Toro Hardy.
JOSE TORO HARDY: We have several refineries in the country, and only two of them are working; of that, only 10% are at capacity.
OTIS: Venezuelan gas is heavily subsidized, which is why a full tank costs less than a penny. Cheap gas was one of the few things people could count on amid the economic crisis. But now black marketeers are charging $5, the equivalent of a month's salary, for a gallon of gas.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: Few people in Villa del Rosario can afford such prices, so they wait in line at the gas station. But when it runs out of fuel, the station often stays closed for several days until fresh supplies can be trucked in. Today, there's plenty of gas. But shortly after 2 p.m., the electricity goes out.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: This leaves Ojeda, the dairy farmer, stranded in his pickup, just a half block from the gas station.
OJEDA: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: "This is terrible," he says. "How can you produce anything here?" Still, Ojeda has grown accustomed to waiting. And it's not long before he and his friends break out the dominoes.
For NPR News, I'm John Otis, in Villa del Rosario, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.