lufthansa airplane.jpg
Photograph: lufthansa.com

Lufthansa flight 534 has just landed in Caracas. But only a few dozen people can be seen waiting at the baggage claim.

"I think there were maybe 40 to 50 people on board," said passenger Mary Mujica. She and her husband left Venezuela for Spain a few years ago, but now wanted to visit their family in the midst of the crisis. "Hardly anyone dares to come here any more," Mujica said.

Welcome to Venezuela, the country with the world's highest inflation rate and a socialist government that can no longer feed its people. Caracas' Simon Bolivar International airport has become an emblem of Venezuela’s crisis.

Lufthansa has been flying to Caracas since 1971. On Friday, however, all flights scheduled by the German airline will be canceled until further notice.

"The difficult economic circumstances [in Venezuela] and the inability to transfer local currency into US dollars have both led to this decision," spokesman Thomas Jachnow said.

The state-mandated exchange rate is far lower than that of the black market: a dollar brings 10 bolivars officially, and up to 1,000 on the black market.

Soaring inflation of the bolivar has made it hard for foreign airlines to secure any profit from tickets sold in the local currency. In Venezuela, Lufthansa is waiting to collect hundreds of millions in debts.

According to the web portal Aerotelegraph, Venezuela tops the list of airline debts worldwide with 3.78 billion dollars past due, followed by Nigeria, Sudan, and Egypt.

Since revenue must be exchanged at extremely poor central bank rates and the airlines' bank transfers are repeatedly blocked, airlines are operating fewer and fewer flights.

Even the Chilean-Brazilian airline Latam is due to cancel its Venezuela flights in August, following in the footsteps of Alitalia, Brazilian airline Gol, and the Ecuadorian airline Tame.

And so the airport has become a kind of ghost town. Three duty-free salespeople absentmindedly rotate on swivel chairs and fiddle with their cell phones. Men wait in vain for customers to show up to have their luggage wrapped in plastic. The tourism desk is abandoned - instead, a lot of military personnel are standing around.

Especially hard-hit by this situation are people like taxi driver Manuel Villoria, 67. He has been driving the route from the suburban airport to the center of Caracas for 33 years.

"It was never this bad. Now even Lufthansa is giving up," he said.

At the immigration counter, an oversized image of Hugo Chavez, the founder of "21st Century Socialism," greets new arrivals. He stands in a crowd of young people, with a caption of the slogan "Sigamos juntos" ("Let’s keep it up.")

But the shine is off the great socialist project. Today, people in Venezuela fear an impending explosion of violence.

The opposition wants to oust Chavez successor President Nicolas Maduro by referendum as quickly as possible. Maduro has cracked down on dissent as protests over food shortages have turned deadly.

Above all, there is a lack of foreign currency for importing goods. There are lines everywhere: at pharmacies, supermarkets and bakeries. Malt shortages have curbed the country's beer production. Coca Cola had to cut back due to lack of sugar.

On top of all that come the security problems. Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

As a result, the lists of flights on airport arrival screens are getting shorter and shorter. For now, Lufthansa will offer only connecting flights through its Colombian and Panamanian partners.

Shortly before Lufthansa 534 arrived, an Air France flight landed from Paris - with only 80 people on board, according to a flight attendant.

"But the plane will certainly be full on the way back," she said. "Because lots of people just want to get out."

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