May 19, 2019

Venezuela's Food Crisis Reaches a Breaking Point

“Late one night last May, on the eve of Venezuela’s Presidential election, Gabriela Vegas heard a commotion outside her home, in the Caracas slum of La Vega. When her husband left the bedroom to investigate, he found a medium-sized package sitting on their doorstep. It was a ration box, inscribed with the silhouettes of Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Vegas and her family receive a delivery of food and other supplies from the government nearly every month, but they had already received their May allotment, and this second, unexpected package was cause for rejoicing. It contained twice as much food as a regular box and several products, including canned tuna and sugar, which working-class families in Venezuela now consider luxuries. Speaking to me by phone, Vegas referred to the delivery as the “exquisite box.” Of Maduro, who was up for reëlection at the time of our first call, she said, in jest, “I wish he were on the campaign trail every day.”

La Vega, one of the capital’s oldest hillside slums, was for years a Chavista stronghold. Its residents remember Chávez, who died, of cancer, in 2013, as the father of the “missions to save the people,” a series of social programs established during Venezuela’s oil bonanza from 2003 to 2012. These initiatives benefitted millions of people born into poverty and, in turn, grew the President’s constituency. Vegas, who is thirty-six, belongs to the generation of Venezuelans that came of age during Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution. Out of need, she signed up for a paid youth training program that Chávez had launched and joined the Socialist Party, in 2004. From then on, she unconditionally voted for the Comandante. “Every election, Chavistas would drive around the neighborhood at dawn and wake everyone to the sound of a trumpet,” Vegas recalled. “We’d all jump out of bed excited to go out and vote—it felt like New Year’s Eve.”

For years, Chávez relied on oil revenues to import food and sell it, along with other goods, at subsidized prices. While in power, he spent without restraint, managed to quadruple Venezuela’s foreign debt, and expropriated or nationalized hundreds of firms, factories, and farms. By the time Maduro took over, after Chávez’s death, Venezuela was on the verge of a crippling economic crisis. A plunge in oil prices precipitated the downfall and undercut Maduro’s capacity to fund long-standing assistance programs, such as food subsidies. To avoid cutting spending, Maduro began printing more and more money, sparking hyperinflation. By curbing imports, he further strangled domestic industries, and the damage to production only worsened when he decided to tighten currency and price controls. Before long, corruption, poverty, and hunger became widespread.”

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