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Venezuela's consumerism flourishes

Chavez issues plea for restraint

Shoppers at a popular mall in Caracas. Consumer spending grew by 20 percent last year. Shoppers at a popular mall in Caracas. Consumer spending grew by 20 percent last year. (Leslie Mazoch/associated press)

CARACAS -- Plastic surgeons are performing nips, tucks, and breast implants at a record pace. BMWs are being snapped up from the sales lots. And sleek new shopping malls are springing up among the high-rises in Venezuela's capital.

Although President Hugo Chavez is urging Venezuelans to adopt more ascetic socialist values, a culture of consumerism is flourishing as an oil boom surges through the nation's economy.

Shoppers are buying everything from cell phones to Scotch whiskey at a rapid clip as the economy benefits from high world oil prices and banks compete for clients by cutting consumer loan rates in half.

Venezuelans bought 343,000 automobiles last year, a 50 percent increase over 2005.

"Everything is selling -- sport utility vehicles, pickups, buses, everything," said Jorge Garcia Tunon, who runs one of the leading auto showrooms in Caracas. "The demand is impressive. The market has grown like crazy."

Waiting lists of two months or more are common for many car models. The waiting lists for compact, inexpensive cars are particularly long. American cars are among those selling well.

Other areas of the economy have experienced similar growth. Consumer spending grew by a historic 20 percent last year compared with 2005, according to estimates by the private polling company Datanalysis.

Seven new shopping malls were built in the country last year, and this year at least 13 more are projected to be completed.

Plastic surgeons also are doing brisk business.

"Between buying myself a car and getting breast surgery, I decided on my breasts, and I think the sacrifice was worth it," said Omaya Davila, a 31-year-old shopkeeper who was waiting for a follow-up appointment with a plastic surgeon after getting breast implants. Eight other patients were in the waiting room.

A record 30,000 Venezuelan women out of a national population of 26 million underwent breast augmentation surgery last year, an increase of nearly 80 percent over the previous year, according to Statistics from the Venezuelan Plastic Surgery Society.

Dr. Reinaldo Kube, the society's president, said the proportion of the population with breast implants in Venezuela is one of the highest in the region. By comparison, a slightly smaller proportion of the US population -- more than 291,000 women -- had breast augmentation surgery in 2005, according to figures from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

"2006 was the year of cosmetic surgery in Venezuela. I'd estimate 200 percent increases in consultations and operations," said Dr. Victor Rada, a plastic surgeon for more than 15 years.

A key force behind Venezuela's economic growth has been the oil industry, which accounts for 78 percent of exports and some 14 percent of Venezuela's gross domestic product. High oil prices also are helping fill government coffers. This year, an estimated 45 percent of government revenues are projected to come from oil.

The consumption trend has touched all social classes, including low-income Venezuelans. A growing state work force, new government benefits, and a rising minimum wage have helped put money in Venezuelans' pockets, even as high inflation has eaten away at those gains.

Chavez on Sunday called rising consumption among the poor a sign of positive economic change, saying "it's part of our policy of seeking equality."

Extended credit lines also have contributed to the spending spree. Loan portfolios grew by 118 percent to $6 billion last year, according to Softline, a Caracas-based banking consultancy.

For the wealthy, new auto dealerships have opened to sell BMWs, Audis, and Hummers.

Importers have brought about 300 Hummers to Venezuela in the past two years, and the sport utility vehicles have sold for an average of $93,000, Garcia Tunon said.

Chavez regularly tells Venezuelans that capitalism is evil and urges them to leave behind their yearnings for wealth.

"Consumerism carries inside it a cell that we could call carcinogenic: corruption. What is the root of the corruption? The desire to possess material goods," Chavez told supporters during a recent speech in which he urged them to embrace socialist ideals.