MARACAIBO/PUNTO FIJO, May 19 (Reuters) - Soldiers oversaw rationing of gasoline at service stations in several parts of Venezuela on Sunday as worsening fuel shortages forced angry drivers to wait for hours to fill their tanks, prompting protests in some areas.
Venezuela, whose economy is reeling from a painful five-year recession amid a prolonged political crisis, saw long lines of vehicles appear at services stations in several regions this week after a shutdown at the OPEC nation’s second-largest refinery.
Shortages have been exacerbated by tough U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan state oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) in January, which have slashed crude oil exports and imports of refined fuels.
Washington recognized opposition head Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader after he invoked the constitution in January to declare an interim presidency, saying President Nicolas Maduro rigged last year’s election.
Maduro calls Guaido a U.S. puppet and says Washington wants to control Venezuela’s oil reserves, the largest in the world. Dozens of people have been killed in political protests this year.
In the western city of San Cristóbal, close to the Colombian border, National Guard soldiers in anti-riot gear limited gasoline sales to 40 litres (10.6 gallons) per vehicle, witnesses said - roughly equivalent to a full tank on a compact vehicle.
Angry residents blocked streets with metal barriers, rubbish and branches in some parts of the city. At some gasoline stations, people said they had been waiting days for fuel.
“How can a country function like this?” asked Antonio Tamariz, 58, who said he had waited for days for fuel to drive his truck back to his farm. “No one has explained why there are so many lines for gasoline. I think the government is losing control of this.”
Venezuela’s Information Ministry - which handles media enquiries for the government - did not respond to requests for comment.
Oil Minister Manuel Quevedo said on Sunday his country’s oil industry was under siege from the U.S. government, causing supply problems.
In the southeastern industrial hub of Puerto Ordaz and the northwestern city of Punto Fijo, close to Venezuela’s largest refining complex, soldiers were ordered to deliver 40 and 30 liters respectively, according to a dozen witnesses.
In the western oil hub of Maracaibo, where power cuts and fuel shortages have been severe in recent months, National Guard soldiers allowed drivers only 20 liters (5.3 gallons) of fuel, witnesses said.
“They have taken control of the pumps,” said Rocio Huerta, a manager of a service station in Maracaibo. “Every five hours there are inspections by the Military Intelligence Division to measure how much gasoline is left.”
Victor Chourio, a 58-year-old taxi driver, said he had arrived at the gasoline station early on Saturday and waited for 12 hours without getting fuel.
“At two o’clock in the afternoon a soldier guard said that only 20 liters per vehicle ... but at seven o’clock the gasoline ran out,” Chourio told Reuters.
Venezuela’s 310,000 bpd Cardon oil refinery - which had been operating well below capacity - halted operations on Wednesday because of damage at some of its units, two workers at the PDVSA-operated complex said. That left only two refineries in operation in Venezuela.
Internal PDVSA documents and Refinitiv Eikon data indicate that Venezuela had not imported a gasoline cargo since March 31.
The fuel shortages come on top of rolling powercuts in many parts of Venezuela as the government attempts to rotate electricity supplies to avoid a repeat of March’s week-long national blackout.
In Caracas, home to roughly a fifth of Venezuela’s more than 30 million people, there were few signs of widespread gasoline shortages as Maduro has prioritized services to the capital.
PDVSA said on its Twitter account on Friday that the government and the company would “ensure the supply and distribution of fuel throughout the national territory.”
PDVSA did not respond to a request for more information.
In some cities, security forces set up special gasoline pumps to deliver fuel for ambulances, medical personnel and official vehicles, a measure that aroused criticism among people who remained in rows often stretching for several kilometers.
Some drivers complained that rationing of fuel meant they would be forced to wait in line for hours once again within just a few days.
“This is not enough at all, between going to work and taking my children to school. It will run out in two days,” said Eduardo Pereira, a 47-year-old teacher in Puerto Ordaz, who was only allowed to buy 40 liters of fuel.
Reporting by Mariela Navas in Maracaibo and Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo Additional reporting by María Ramírez in Puerto Ordaz, Anggy Polanco in San Cristóbal, Keren Torres in Barquisimeto and Tibisay Romero in Valencia Writing by Daniel Flynn and Corina Pons; Editing by Lisa Shumaker