Crossing the Line: Venezuela’s Food Shortages No Joke


EspañolThe logic is undeniable, or absurd, according to how you look at it: “There are lines because there’s food. If there weren’t any food, there wouldn’t be lines.”

The phrase, coined by the vice president of Food Sovereignty and minister to the Presidential Secretariat, Carlos Osorio, was an attempt to pacify Venezuelans facing a desperate situation of shortages in the food supply that has only worsened in January. Or at least it was aimed to be.

Citizens spend up to 12 hours in line, trying to secure milk, chicken, detergent, and diapers for their children, among other scarce products. This latest utterance from Osorio joins others made by other Chavista supporters that will go down in the history of this sorry period that has befallen a formerly rich, powerful, and democratic nation.

Osorio’s title, major general and vice president of Food Sovereignty, is ironic to say the least, given that Venezuela has to import up to 70 percent of the foodstuffs it consumes. Up until 1998, when Chavismo took power, the country was self-sufficient in its food production.

The minister preceded his latest tautology on Friday with the reassuring statement that people shouldn’t despair of finding milk, because “the state imports 80 percent of milk from abroad.”

Chavismo understands food sovereignty as the state assuming direct control over the importing of foodstuffs. Venezuelans today barely understand where anything they eat comes from, nor if it’s subject to any health regulations. Scandals such as the burial of several tons of food products, where they’re left to rot underneath the piers of Venezuelan ports, have proliferated in recent years.

Part of Osorio’s soundbite about the lines was correct. Venezuelans have become so used to shortages, they now know that if there are no lines in front of a supermarket, it’s because the supermarket almost definitely has nothing to offer. Or it may be because the products on the shelves are available at impossible prices; the bill for a basic shopping basket in Venezuela now costs over six times the minimum monthly salary.

Venezuelans spend entire nights waiting in line, while the government does nothing. Another comment which provoked unanimous hilarity and anger in equal measure was that of the Yaracuy State governor, Julio León, who prohibited people from spending the night in lines to buy food, suggesting that it “generated anxiety in the population.”

“Yesterday, after evaluating many complaints from the people, I decreed a prohibition against anyone spending the night outside commercial places!”

Over the weekend, the government, desperate to maintain the illusion of a reality that only exists on state media, censored or self-censored, created a series of small open-air markets throughout Caracas. The scarce quantity of foodstuffs and large lines caused various disturbances, including an outbreak of looting in the capital, in commuter city Guatire, and in Maturín, some 600 kilometers to the east.

President Nicolás Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, launched a campaign — advised by Juan Carlos Monedero, without doubt the ideologue behind Spain’s radical socialist challenger Podemos — of nationalization and expropriation of lands and businesses to control food production in Venezuela.

This policy, buoyed for a while by sky-high oil prices, ultimately failed. Now Maduro is simultaneously facing the failure of the Chavista model, which he cannot change without being accused of being a traitor, and oil prices that have been cut in half.

Jokes aside, this latest — and hopefully last — failure of the socialist model has brought Venezuelans to a crossroads.

The government is betting everything on crude prices returning to their previously highs, as demonstrated by Maduro‘s visit to the OPEC countries, but this doesn’t seem likely. Markets in Venezuela are militarized: he who protests or tries to go against them will end up prisoner. Just like those who try to protest against the government.

Venezuelans have it loud and clear in another statement that will likely become a chronicle of these times, from the country’s Vice President Jorge Arreaza: “Anyone who wants to join Leopoldo López,” Arreaza said, “should know that in Ramo Verde military prison there are plenty of cells available.”

It’s a threat which, as Venezuelans well know, is deadly serious.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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