- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela — The car show is filled with men who gravitate to the sport utility vehicles, peering through their windows and slipping into their leather seats.

Many say they’re looking for a powerful engine, but no one asks about gas mileage. In oil-rich Venezuela, gasoline costs as little as 12 cents a gallon thanks to government subsidies — and SUVs are selling briskly.

“Everyone wants to buy a 4x4,” said Jose Moreno, a 49-year-old businessman examining Fords at the show on Saturday. “And since gasoline is cheap, you don’t think twice about spending on that.”

Venezuelans see cheap fuel as a birthright. Filling up an SUV’s tank with high-octane gasoline costs roughly $3 — less than it costs to buy two jugs of drinking water.

And as oil exports have boosted the economy, the country has experienced a boom in auto sales, including large four-wheel drives that have lost appeal elsewhere as fuel costs have soared.

Subsidies have held down prices since long before Hugo Chavez assumed the presidency in 1999 by promising a revolution for the poor.

When Venezuela raised fuel prices in 1989 as part of an ill-fated austerity move, it pushed up bus fares and crystallized anger among the poor, setting off riots. Soldiers and police clashed with rioters, leaving more than 300 dead, according to official estimates; human rights groups put the toll much higher.

Since then, governments have been wary of attempting big price increases, and gasoline remains cheaper in Venezuela today than in other oil-producing nations such as Saudi Arabia or Iran.

As a result, gas-guzzling station wagons and pickups of the 1970s and ‘80s are still common in the barrios of Caracas, as well as old jeeps known as “rusticos” that often serve as public transport. The streets are clogged with traffic jams and buses spewing exhaust.

Off-road racing with four-wheel drives is a popular sport, and Toyota has one Land Cruiser model named Autana, after a majestic flat-topped mountain in southern Venezuela.

In auto showrooms, the well-to-do have been snapping up SUVs from Ford Expeditions to Hummers. Toyota and Nissan SUVs also are popular.

Many models of both cars and sport utility vehicles are in such demand that buyers must sign waiting lists. The wait for a Toyota 4Runner is said to be two months.

Mr. Chavez, in his speeches to Venezuelans, often warns that rampant fuel consumption in the United States is causing global warming. Though his country is the world’s No. 5 oil exporter, Mr. Chavez urges Venezuelans to adopt “socialist” values and says not everyone needs a car.

But at the Caracas Auto Show, most everyone was shopping — and many for the big sport utility vehicles. Waiters served sangria while models wearing jumpsuits handed out brochures among the four-wheel drives.

Hector Pacheco, a 68-year-old engineer, said he hoped to buy an sport utility vehicle to help negotiate potholed roads. He acknowledged, though, that he wouldn’t want a gas guzzler if he lived in a country where he had to pay market prices at the pump.

“They really do consume a lot,” Mr. Pacheco said. “That’s never on our minds, because the price is so cheap.”

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