Venezuelans are storming supermarkets and attacking trucks as food supplies dwindle

A child in her house in Barlovento waits for lunch, which consists of only boiled yam. Food sold in the black market can be 1000 per cent higher than what it cost in government-regulated grocery stores. Photo: Washington Post


Caracas: In the darkness the warehouse looks like any other, a metal-roofed hangar next to a clattering overpass, with homeless people sleeping nearby in the shadows.

But inside, workers quietly unload black plastic crates filled with merchandise so valuable that mobs have looted delivery vehicles, shot up the windshields of trucks and hurled a rock into one driver’s eye. Soldiers and police milling around the loading depots give this neighbourhood the feel of a military garrison.

“It’s just cheese,” said Juan Urrea, a 29-year-old driver, as workers unloaded thousands of pounds of white Venezuelan queso from his delivery truck. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

The fight for food has begun in Venezuela. On any day, in cities across this increasingly desperate nation, crowds form to sack supermarkets. Protesters take to the streets to decry the sky-rocketing prices and dwindling supplies of basic goods. The wealthy improvise, some shopping online for food that arrives from Miami. Middle-class families make do with less: coffee without milk, sardines instead of beef, two daily meals instead of three. The poor are stripping mangos off the trees and struggling to survive.

“This is savagery,” said Pedro Zaraza, a car oil salesman, who watched a mob mass on Friday outside a supermarket, where it was eventually dispersed by the army. “The authorities are losing their grip.”

What has been a slow-motion crisis in Venezuela seems to be careening into a new, more dangerous phase. The long economic decline of the country with the world’s largest oil reserves now shows signs of morphing into a humanitarian emergency, with government mismanagement and low petroleum prices leading to widespread shortages and inflation that could surpass 700 per cent this year.

The political stakes are mounting. Exhausted by government-imposed power blackouts, spiralling crime, endless food lines, shortages of medicine and waves of looting and protest, citizens are mobilising against their leaders. In recent days, Venezuelans lined up to add their names to a recall petition that aims to bring down the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, and put an end to the socialist-inspired “revolution” ignited 17 years ago by Hugo Chavez.

Many of the welfare programs started by Chavez have dried up and stores often have  little more than two-litre bottles of Pepsi and packs of Pall Mall cigarettes. Under Chavez, the government established a network of government-run supermarkets that sold basic foods at subsidised prices. But inflation has put even these bargains out of reach for many people. A single kilogram of yucca – about two pounds – now costs about one-third of the weekly minimum wage.

Venezuelans hunt for deer and armadillos for subsistence and barter their meager catch. Many live on what they can grow – yams, tomatoes, corn – or forage.

About 87 per cent of people say they don’t have enough money to buy food, according to a recent study by Simon Bolivar University.

This year, Maduro decreed that food distribution would be placed under the control of thousands of local citizen committees that critics say are biased toward government supporters.That meant subsidised food would be diverted from the poorly stocked government-run supermarkets.

Over the first five months of this year, Venezuelans have violently looted businesses – or tried to do so – at least 254 times, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. The number of protests over food has risen each month this year, to 172 in May. Several people have died and hundreds more have been arrested in incidents of unrest across the country.

Maduro’s administration has blamed the incidents on an “economic war” led by foreigners and private businessmen who, it claims, are hoarding food supplies to destabilise the government.

“There is no humanitarian crisis,” Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez told an Organisation of American States meeting last week.

Full article: Venezuelans are storming supermarkets and attacking trucks as food supplies dwindle (Sydney Morning Herald)

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