CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelans scrambled to stock up on toilet paper Thursday as fears of a bathroom emergency spread despite the socialist government's promise to import 50 million rolls.
After years of economic dysfunction, the country has gotten used to shortages of medicines and basic food items like milk and sugar, but the scarcity of bathroom tissue has caused unusual alarm.
"Even at my age, I've never seen this," said Maria Rojas, 70. She said she had been looking for toilet paper for two weeks when she found it at a supermarket in downtown Caracas.
Thousands of rolls flew off the store's shelves as consumers streamed in and loaded up shopping carts Thursday morning.
"Here there's a shortage of everything - butter, sugar, flour," said Maria Perez. But the latest shortage is particularly worrisome "because there always used to be toilet paper."
Economists say Venezuela's shortages of some consumer products stem from price controls meant to make basic goods available to the poorest parts of society and the government's controls on foreign currency.
President Nicolas Maduro, who was selected by the dying Hugo Chavez to carry on his "Bolivarian revolution," says anti-government forces, including the private sector, are causing the shortages to destabilize the country.
The government this week announced it would import 760,000 tons of food and 50 million rolls of toilet paper.
Commerce Minister Alejandro Fleming said "excessive demand" for tissue had built up due to a "media campaign that has been generated to disrupt the country."
He said monthly consumption of toilet paper was normally 125 million rolls, but current demand "leads us to think that 40 million more are required."
"We will bring in 50 million to show those groups that they won't make us bow down," he said.
That was little comfort to consumers struggling to find bathroom supplies. Several supermarkets visited by The Associated Press in the capital on Wednesday and Thursday were out of toilet paper. Those that received fresh batches quickly filled up with shoppers as the word spread.
"I've been looking for it for two weeks," Cristina Ramos said at a store on Wednesday. "I was told that they had some here, and now I'm in line."
Patience is wearing thin among consumers who face shortages and long lines at supermarkets and pharmacies. Last month, the country's scarcity index reached its highest level since 2009, while the 12-month inflation rate has risen to nearly 30 percent. Shoppers often spend several days looking for basic items.