Associated Press, July 31, 2015
CARACAS, Venezuela–Venezuelans are struggling to call
abroad as telephone carriers fall behind on payments to international partners
amid a currency crisis that is leaving the country increasingly cut off from
the rest of the world.
The South American nation’s largest private telephone
operator, Movistar, quietly ended service to all but 10 countries in May. The
other major private operator here, Digitel, cut service to more than 100
countries around the same time, and later told congress it was tens of millions
of dollars in debt to foreign providers.
The changes have not been formally announced. Instead,
Venezuelans are making the unhappy discovery when they dial an international
number and bump into an ominous pre-recorded error message.
Caracas shopkeeper Wilmer Ruiz realized last week that he
couldn’t call his family in Cuba or a friend who immigrated to Ecuador. Both
countries have been staunch allies of Venezuela’s 16-year socialist revolution.
“We’re just falling behind the rest of the world in every
way,” Ruiz said.
Internet calling services like Skype go only so far toward
resolving the issue. Many people don’t have easy access to WiFi, so they have
to rely on cellphone data packages that can be prohibitively expensive. And
pay-as-you-go services that allow for cheap calls to cellphones over the
Internet require a foreign credit card, which most Venezuelans don’t have.
In Ruiz’s case, his friend in Ecuador can’t afford a full
data plan and his Cuban family has no Internet access.
Phone service was spotty in Venezuela even in better days.
Though when a call does go through, international rates are capped at basement
prices, with a four-hour call to Hong Kong costing less than 50 cents at the
black market exchange rate.
The phones are just the latest things to go as currency
rationing cuts Venezuela off from global trade.
Foreign airlines have abandoned the country over the past
year because of Venezuela’s limits on repatriating profits. Last year, the
state-run postal service indefinitely suspended international mail deliveries.
In the spring, the government slashed the amount of local currency citizens are
allowed to convert into dollars when they travel abroad to as little as $300,
essentially blocking vacations for anyone who can’t afford to buy currency on
the black market.
Decade-old regulations require companies and individuals to
get government approval for converting local bolivars into dollars. And with
the administration running low on dollars itself amid a general economic
collapse, officials have been increasingly reluctant to part with any foreign
Digitel has not received any dollars since 2014, company
president Oswaldo Cisneros told congress in June. Venezuela’s state-owned
provider, CANTV, took the rare step this year of acknowledging in its annual
report that the lack of access to dollars has limited its growth.
Diplomats at the German, Romanian, Austrian and Dutch
embassies also report problems calling home. All spoke on condition of
anonymity to avoid upsetting delicate relations with the government.
Movistar is maintaining service only to the 10 most-called
destinations– Aruba, Spain, Italy, the U.S. and six Latin American countries,
said Adriana Di Genova, a spokeswoman for parent company Telefonica. The
hopefully temporary change is a reaction to the business climate that has
already seen the Madrid-based company write down the value of its investments
in Venezuela by about $3 billion, she told the AP.
Telephone carriers may ultimately start charging in dollars.
This month, Movistar representatives approached the Indian Embassy and offered
to restore international service if the organization switched to a contract
paid in dollars, said a diplomat who insisted on anonymity because he did not
have authorization to discuss the issue.
Dollarization might make some expats happy, including
Sabrina Wang, who moved to Caracas a few months ago to work for the Chinese
telecommunications company ZTE in its partnership with Venezuela’s government.
Wang gets by with Skype, but wishes she could call her family from her
“It’s the same with everything here. You have money, but you
can’t buy what you want because it just doesn’t exist,” she said.