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World & Nation

Food isn’t just a dire need in Venezuela — it has become a major political tool

Neighbors wait to receive bags of subsidized food distributed under a government program named “CLAP
People wait in line for subsidized food distributed under a government program called CLAP in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 31.
(Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)

Carmen Salas, a mother of three in the working-class southern reaches of this anxious capital, wandered through the vast produce market known as Coche, searching for bargains.

She finally settled on 3 kilograms of corn to make maize flour for arepas, a tortilla-like staple. The price: About 2,100 bolivars, the equivalent of about 66 U.S. cents.

It was all she could afford.

“At least with this, my family can eat for three or four days,” Salas said, clutching her bag full of corn. “Small portions, of course.”

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Venezuela is in the midst of a political, social and economic crisis as two governments battle for legitimacy both inside the country and abroad.

On Monday, Spain, Britain and other European nations joined the United States in recognizing the self-proclaimed interim rule of opposition leader Juan Guaido — whose stunning rise last month represents the most serious challenge President Nicolas Maduro and his socialist government have ever faced.

But amid the international wrangling, many Venezuelans have a more primary concern: severe food shortages.

Photographs of people queuing for rice, flour and other subsidized staples have become iconic images of the transformation of this once-wealthy nation of 32 million into a place where almost 90% of the population lives in poverty.

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A study published last February by researchers at three universities here found that Venezuelans lost an average of 24 pounds in the previous year and that nearly 1 in 4 people were eating two meals a day or fewer.

“In three or four years of crisis the deterioration has been monumental,” Maria Ponce, a coauthor and sociologist at Andres Bello Catholic University, said when it was released.

Any discussion of food in Venezuela is unavoidably political.

Each side in the current standoff blames the other for food shortages — and each side accuses the other of manipulating food for political purposes.

The Maduro government regularly blames shortages of food and medicine on a U.S. “economic war” and “blockade” as well as Venezuelan businesses that hoard produce and “sabotage” deliveries to drive up prices.

“You are shameless,” Maduro scolded major food suppliers last year, warning that “radical measures” would be taken against those who did not comply with government price controls he promised would help achieve an “economic miracle.”

A few months later, a fury erupted when videos went viral on social media showing Maduro and the first lady, Cilia Flores, feasting with a celebrity chef at a famed steakhouse in Istanbul, Turkey. The president, also seen puffing on cigars from a personal stash, was on a stopover while returning home after an official trip to China seeking aid for his cash-starved homeland.

“While Venezuelans suffer and die of hunger, Nicolas Maduro and Cilia enjoy one of the most expensive restaurants in the world, all with money stolen from the Venezuelan people,” Julio Borges, the head of congress before he went into exile in Colombia, wrote on Twitter at the time.

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A man scavenges for food in Caracas on February 1, 2019. (Adriana Loureiro Fernandez / For The Times
A man scavenges for food in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 1, 2019.
(Adriana Loureiro Fernandez / For The Times)

Over the weekend Guaido rolled out an agreement with the U.S. to address the shortages by importing food, medicine and other humanitarian aid.

But Maduro rejected the help from a nation that he says is plotting a coup against him.

“Venezuela is not a country of beggars,” he told a pro-government rally last weekend.

His critics say that incompetence, corruption and misguided policies — including government expropriations and controls on prices and currency conversion — have reduced both domestic food production and imports.

They blame government-linked gangs for hijackings of trucks filled with produce, which sometimes end up on the black market, and say high-ranking military officers and other Maduro loyalists have diverted funds from food contracts.

“For years now Maduro has used food as a tool to control Venezuela,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a Twitter message on Sunday. “He has weaponized hunger & disease.”

Critics portray Maduro’s signature food distribution initiative — Local Committees for Supply and Production, known by its Spanish acronym, CLAP — as a form of social manipulation meant to increase votes for the ruling party on election days.

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Maduro himself has called the program his “most powerful weapon,” saying it has been key in reducing hunger.

It involves the monthly delivery of boxes of cooking oil, rice, pasta and other staples to millions of households at heavily discounted rates — “a just price,” Maduro has said.

“By contrast, in capitalism [companies] fix the prices,” he said shortly after the program was introduced in 2016.

The subsidized produce has become essential for many as the economy has worsened.

But the program has also been the target of a criminal investigation in Mexico, where many of the food products originate. Last year, the attorney general’s office there said it had broken up a ring of Mexican and Venezuelan entrepreneurs who illegally profited from CLAP by acquiring low-quality products in Mexico, exporting them to Venezuela at marked-up prices and then reselling them here with yet another markup.

Guaido accused participants of “trafficking in the misery of Venezuelans.”

Maduro defended the food-subsidy program and cast doubt on the allegations.

Neighbors wait to receive bags with subsidized food distributed under a government program named “CL
Neighbors wait to receive bags of subsidized food distributed under a government program called CLAP in Caracas, Venezuela.
(Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)

At the root of the food shortage is hyperinflation and wage deflation.

Food is readily available at big chain stores, neighborhood markets, pricey restaurants and upscale cafes. But in a country where the minimum wage now stands at the equivalent of about $6 a month, few people can afford it.

At the current exchange rate, a bottle of Heinz ketchup, a favorite import here, costs about $9.

“The people don’t buy like they used to — they can’t, the prices change every day,” said Aurelio Rizzo, a butcher at the Coche market. “In the past, people bought 1 kilo of every cut of meat. Now, if they buy 1 kilo in total, it’s a lot.”

Rizzo, 72, was a teenager when he arrived here from Sicily with his family in 1961, an era when Venezuela was a thriving destination for European immigrants.

Today, people are fleeing en masse, and one of the most popular items at his shop is chicken skin, which was selling for the equivalent of about 6 U.S. cents per pound.

“We used to give them away for pets,” said one butcher, shaking his head. “Now people seek them out.”

Salas said she had to sell her car to feed her children.

“Unfortunately, what I got for the car only paid for two months of expenses,” said the 45-year-old former government office worker.

After enduring years of crisis, Salas is not hopeful of things improving anytime soon.

“We Venezuelans are still too divided,” she said. “We need to be more unified. What do I feel now? I feel a profound sadness, a gloomy silence.”

Mogollon is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.


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