Even in church, Venezuelans face shortages

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) —         When it comes to Venezuela’s growing scarcities, not even the Roman Catholic Church has received a dispensation.

Church officials say food shortages and foreign exchange restrictions are causing a lack of ingredients needed to celebrate Mass: altar wine as well as wheat to produce communion wafers.

They say the wheat flour used for the sacramental wafers is scarce and the supply of altar wine used for Holy Communion is threatened, which could force them to ration it.

“We only have enough for two months,” said Archbishop Roberto Luckert, a spokesman for the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference. He said Venezuela’s only producer of church-standard communion wine, Bodegas Pomar, recently informed the church that it can no longer guarantee production because it lacks some imported ingredients.

The church’s concerns echo those of Venezuelans in general, who have struggled to find goods such as toilet paper and staple food items like milk, sugar and cooking oil.

Economists say the shortages stem from the socialist government’s controls on the prices of some goods and on foreign currency, which makes it hard for producers to pay for things they need to import.

President Nicolas Maduro blames the shortages on hoarding and says anti-government forces are trying to destabilize the country.

Bodegas Pomar is controlled by Empresas Polar, the biggest food producer in Venezuela. Company officials did not return calls seeking comment. And government officials have not commented on the issue.

The Episcopal Conference is looking for alternative wines, but Luckert said that is difficult because church rules specify wine that is “pure and natural,” without additives.

“The other option would be to import it, but the costs would be very high because we don’t have access to dollars,” the archbishop said. The only other alternative is to ration the wine, he added.

Venezuela has maintained strict currency controls since 2003, creating a black market that now sells dollars at more than triple the official rate of 6.3 bolivars. Falling oil exports and foreign investment have helped dry up the dollar supply.

The church is considering asking the government for access to dollars, but it hasn’t made a formal request so far, Luckert said.

The shortage of wheat flour has compounded the problems for the church, because the host, or wafer, administered during Holy Communion must be made of wheat. The wafers are made by nuns in convents and parish houses.

“Sometimes we spend days trying to get two or three bags,” said Sister Maria de los Angeles, a 49-year-old nun shopping in a small grocery store in Caracas.

Though the government has announced mass imports of basic food items and toilet paper, many products seem to run out shortly after they hit the shelves.

Liliana Escobar, a 32-year-old housewife, was among those lined up this week outside store rumored to have received a fresh shipment of toilet paper.

“On top of losing hours in order to buy four rolls of paper, now we won’t even be able to receive communion as God commands,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”

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