Venezuelans began to spend an estimated $39 million last week as freely as if it were water. They crowded Caracas stores to buy U.S.-made pedal-operated jeeps for their small fry. They stormed bars to set up drinks for friends and strangers. They shopped for Christmas presents, clothes, champagne, even Canadian-grown Christmas trees. They dropped silver bolivars into the hands of garbagemen, messengers, menials. Even the poorest of them splurged on big hallacas (tamales made from corn, chicken, spices, meat and rice) and bottles of rum.

All this took place because of an old Spanish custom brought up to date. For years,...

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