World

Venezuela’s hunger crisis is like a “war zone without bombs”

But the government is not letting international aid reach the needy

Father Victor Salomon is a priest at one of the largest parishes in Caracas, Venezuela. Nearby the church is one of the biggest garbage storage sites in the city.

“You never saw people around there before, but now you see people going there looking for food,” Father Salomon said in an interview this week.

That view from the church is just a small glimpse into a worsening crisis in Venezuela that has forced people to stand in long lines for food and sometimes go without medicine. Parishioners themselves are not immune. The priest spoke of one woman who used to bring food to those in need. “Now she relies on others to help her,” he said.

Father Salomon likens the situation to being in a war zone, but without bombs.

And with an important distinction: “Usually in a war,” he said, “the parties to the conflict let the Red Cross in, but this government won’t allow charities in to help people.”

He was referring to the government of Nicolás Maduro, Hugo Chávez’ hand-picked successor as the leader of Venezuela. “The government doesn’t recognize that we’re in a crisis and need international help,” Father Salomon complained.

That may be changing, perhaps in response to increasing world attention and attempts to hold a recall referendum to get Maduro out of office.

“What we’ve been experiencing is a consequence of a process initiated 17 years ago, originally presented with the name ‘21st Century Socialism,’ a process of moral, economic and family destruction,” said a man who wished to remain anonymous because he feared repercussions for his family.

This man suspects that the government is creating difficulties so that those with businesses and talent will emigrate, so that Maduro can control the others, who don’t have the wherewithal to oppose him.

He added that people are dying in hospitals from very curable conditions, simply because of a dearth of medicines.

“It is impossible to deny the serious crisis that prevents the arrival of food and medicine from other parts of the world, sent by various non-governmental organizations and Church organizations such as Caritas,” Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, Archbishop of Caracas, told local media this week.

According to Fides news agency, Cardinal Urosa said the situation is deteriorating and urged the Maduro administration to ensure that the Organization of American States activates the “Democratic Charter” Interamericana, which would enable international aid to enter the country.

Less than a week ago, the National Assembly passed a law to address the health problem created by the shortage of medicines, as well as requesting the support of international humanitarian organizations that had already offered to send food and medicine. But at Maduro’s request, the Supreme Court of Justice issued a ruling that overturned that law.

The New York Times, which cites the “economic collapse of recent years” as the reason for the crisis, reports that 87 percent of Venezuelans say they do not have money to buy enough food.

Among them are Leidy Cordova, 37, and her five children, ages 1 to 11, who recently enjoyed a soup Cordova made by boiling chicken skin and fat that she had found for a cheap price at the butcher.

They then went without eating for at least another day.

“My kids tell me they’re hungry,” Cordova said. “And all I can say to them is to grin and bear it.”

Other families have to choose who eats, the paper said:

Lucila Fonseca, 69, has lymphatic cancer, and her 45-year-old daughter, Vanessa Furtado, has a brain tumor.

Despite also being ill, Ms. Furtado gives up the little food she has on many days so her mother does not skip meals.

“I used to be very fat, but no longer,” the daughter said. “We are dying as we live.”

Her mother added, “We are now living on Maduro’s diet: no food, no nothing.”

Economists say years of economic mismanagement — worsened by low prices for oil, the nation’s main source of revenue — have shattered the food supply.

Sugar fields in the country’s agricultural center lie fallow for lack of fertilizers. Unused machinery rots in shuttered state-owned factories. Staples like corn and rice, once exported, now must be imported and arrive in amounts that do not meet the need. …

In response, Mr. Maduro has tightened his grip over the food supply. Using emergency decrees he signed this year, the president put most food distribution in the hands of a group of citizen brigades loyal to leftists, a measure critics say is reminiscent of food rationing in Cuba.

The Washington Post reported:

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 mangoes off the trees and struggling to survive.

According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Venezuela remains highly dependent on oil revenues, which account for almost all export earnings and nearly half of the government’s revenue. The country ended 2015 with an estimated 10% contraction in its GDP, 275% inflation, widespread shortages of consumer goods, and declining central bank international reserves. The IMF forecasts that the GDP will shrink another 8% in 2016 and inflation may reach 720%.

Falling oil prices since 2014 have aggravated Venezuela’s economic crisis. Insufficient access to dollars, price controls, and rigid labor regulations have led some US and multinational firms to reduce or shut down their Venezuelan operations. Market uncertainty and state oil company PDVSA’s poor cash flow have slowed investment in the petroleum sector, resulting in a decline in oil production.
Under President Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan Government’s response to the economic crisis has been to increase state control over the economy and blame the private sector for the shortages. The Venezuelan government has maintained strict currency controls since 2003. [Recent] currency controls present significant obstacles to trade with Venezuela because importers cannot obtain sufficient dollars to purchase goods needed to maintain their operations. Maduro has used decree powers to enact legislation to deepen the state’s role as the primary buyer and distributor of imports, further tighten currency controls, cap business profits, and extend price controls.

For Americans for Prosperity, the socialist economic policies of Maduro’s government is the reason for the crisis. Why should farmers farm and manufacturers manufacture if they’re forced to sell their goods at a lower price than what it took to make them in the first place?” a blog post on the organization’s website asked.

To make matters worse, the authoritarian regime necessary to enforce such strict regulations has become increasingly paranoid (a regular occurrence with socialist governments) and has been quick to seize any farm or factory whose owner appears to be at odds with the regime by refusing to produce or sell goods at a set price. These seized properties become even less productive when put in the hands of regime loyalists – often military men who know nothing about how to effectively raise a crop or run a business. This lack of expertise and ability is reflected in the fact that 90% of confiscated and nationalized farms and businesses no longer produce anything at all.

Father Salomon said that people are coping in various ways. Some barter or get into WhatsApp groups so they can alert one another when they know of stores getting shipments, he said. And there are those who see opportunity: Some people who get a hold of food are jacking up the prices, the clergyman said.

“For priests, it’s a perfect time to be with our people and encourage them and help them get strength, which is not our strength, it’s God’s strength, particularly the Eucharist,” he said. “Without that, it’s impossible to continue working and living in this country.”

 

Shawn Neal

John Burger

John Burger is a news editor at Aleteia. He formerly worked at the National Catholic Register and Catholic New York in the Archdiocese of New York. He has also written for a wide variety of Catholic publications.