Venezuelan drivers in for a hit – government wants to up gasoline prices image

Owners of the 1970s-era gas guzzling trucks and sedans that have long reigned over Caracas’ smog-filled roadways will soon have to pay a bit more to keep flaunting their energy-inefficient monsters.

As an economic crisis drains government coffers, President Nicolas Maduro is putting motorists on notice and taking on one of the nation’s biggest sacred cows: nearly free gasoline. With cut-rate prices for fuel, Venezuelans have never felt compelled to buy smaller, more environment-friendly vehicles like motorists in many other countries, often favoring decades-old clunkers or newer SUVs.

Prices at Venezuelan gas pumps have been frozen for almost 20 years with politicians hesitant to repeat the mistake of rising prices in 1989, triggering days of deadly rioting. The late President Hugo Chavez once confessed it pained him to practically give away fuel to luxury car owners, but during 14 years of rule he never dared to touch the gasoline subsidy that consumes upward of $12.5 billion a year in government income.

But all good things must come to an end. For Venezuelan motorists, to whom cheap gas is something of a birthright and fuel efficiency a foreign concept, that means having to pay more than the 5 cents a gallon that gas currently costs at the official exchange rate, or less than a penny at the widely-used black market rate.

Politically, the timing is right to increase gas prices. After four elections in little more than a year, Venezuelans aren’t scheduled to go to the polls again until late 2015. That gives Maduro a rare opening to push unpopular reforms that analysts say are long overdue. Coupled with a devaluation of Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, eliminating the gas subsidy will help close a budget deficit estimated at 11.5 percent of gross domestic product, among the world’s largest.