Toilet paper, rice and coffee have long been missing from stores, as Venezuelan president blames CIA plot for chronic shortages
It’s the rainy season in Venezuela and Pedro Rodríguez has had to battle upturned manhole lids, flooded avenues and infernal traffic jams in his quest for sugar, oil and milk in Caracas.
His daily battle to find food is not new, but it’s getting worse. “There is something about finally having enough to make ends meet and being unable to buy what I need because it’s gone missing. It leaves me feeling indignant,” says Rodríguez, a 55-year-old removal man who makes an average of £500 a month. “I haven’t lost hope that things will get better, but sometimes the end seems nowhere in sight.”
Venezuelans have faced shortages before, so rehashing old strategies such as substituting rice for manioc or going to informal street vendors who re-sell oil, milk or flour at a higher price, comes easy. For many here, finding food is not the problem – it is the lengths one has to go to that are hard to reconcile.
In Avenida Victoria, a low-income sector of Caracas, Zeneida Caballero complains about waiting in endless queues for a sack of low-quality rice. “It fills me with rage to have to spend the one free day I have wasting my time for a bag of rice,” she says. “I end up paying more at the re-sellers. In the end, all these price controls proved useless.”
In 2008, when there was another serious wave of food scarcity, most people blamed shop owners for hoarding food as a mechanism to exert pressure on the government’s price controls, a measure that former president Hugo Chávez adopted as part of his self-styled socialist revolution.
This time, however, food shortages have gone on for almost a year and certain items long gone from the shelves are hitting a particular nerve with Venezuelans. Toilet paper, rice, coffee, and cornflour, used to make arepas, Venezuela’s national dish, have become emblematic of more than just an economic crisis.
“We used to produce rice and we had excellent coffee; now we produce nothing. With the situation here people abandoned the fields,” says Jesús López, in reference to government-seized land that sits idle. “Empty shelves and no one to explain why a rich country has no food. It’s unacceptable,” adds the 90-year-old farmer from San Cristóbal, on the western state of Táchira, bordering Colombia.
For Asdrubal Oliveros, an economist at Ecoanalítica, one of the country’s leading consulting firms, this recent bout of food shortages is the result of a series of elements coming to a head. From an over-reliance on imports to price controls and, quite simply, a lack of funds, food shortages in Venezuela have not only peaked but they have lasted longer than ever.
“Other than oil, we produce close to nothing, and even oil production has decreased. There is a lack of hard currency, and, in a country that imports everything, this becomes more evident with food scarcity,” says Oliveros.
For Oliveros, an additional cause for the shortage of basic food staples is the decrease in agricultural production resulting from seized companies and land expropriations. “More than 3m hectares were expropriated during 2004-2010. That and overvalued exchange rate destroyed agriculture. It’s cheaper to import than it is to produce. That’s a perverse model that kills off any productivity,” he says.
Venezuela’s central bank, which has been publishing a scarcity index since 2009, puts this year’s figure at an average of 20%, which, according to economists in the country, is similar to countries undergoing civil strife or war-like conditions.
But despite the severe scarcity Venezuelans are not going hungry. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has said that the Latin American nation more than halved malnutrition indices to less than 5% since Chávez came to power. It gives partial credit to the government-run network of food distribution chains known as Mercal, which delivers subsidised food in shops across the country. And yet food has gone missing, and queues outside food shops often wrap around the block.
According to President Nicolás Maduro, the food shortages are being artificially induced by the opposition. He claims they form part of wider plan concocted by the CIA to destabilise his government, sabotage the oil industry and trigger power cuts.
In response, Maduro announced the creation of a state council that would inspect private companies to ensure they were not deliberately slowing distribution or decreasing production. The oil-rich country will also import almost £600m-worth of food from neighbouring Colombia to ensure stores are well-stocked.
Back in Catia, a low-income area in eastern Caracas, Rodríguez leaves the store almost empty-handed. He has found sugar but not a brand he recognises. He will buy oil from an informal seller for three times the regular price and forgo milk – again. “Part of me leaves the shop gleaming like I’ve hit the jackpot,” he says. “As if finding food was a matter of luck.”
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