Hunger in Venezuela? A look beyond the spin

By Christina Schiavoni and William Camacaro July 15, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Food First! with permission — You may have seen the headlines about Venezuela – headlines that allude to food scarcity, rioting, people eating stray animals to survive, and a country on the brink of starvation. These stories are not only alarming, but perplexing, too. Is this the same country that was recognized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as recently as 2015 for having nearly eradicated hunger?[1] Is this the same country that has been the focus of international delegations and extensive alternative media coverage for its ‘food sovereignty experiment’ involving agrarian reform, food distributions programs, and direct citizen participation in the food system?[2] What’s going on? There is a nuanced story behind the current headlines on Venezuela. It’s a challenging moment for average working class Venezuelans as they navigate long lines at the grocery store, a lack of key food staples, and inflated prices in order to feed their families. But there’s not an overall food shortage — food is in abundance, with distribution serving a bottleneck. There are numerous explanations coming from both government and citizens. What is driving the current ‘scarcity amidst abundance’ in Venezuela? How did the present situation come to be? How dire is it, and what are the responses coming from communities, social movements, and the government? To what extent is the present situation being distorted in the media, and why? This article attempts to delve behind the headlines to address these questions. A petroleum economy and a food system in the balance For nearly a century, Venezuela’s economy has centered around oil, which accounts for the vast majority of its foreign earnings—over 95% at present—and national budget.[3] Since the 1930s, the orientation towards petroleum also meant a shift away from agriculture, which came with a massive price tag. As both the state and private capital withdrew from the countryside, Venezuela’s peasant farmers and rural workers could no longer earn a living. Many flocked to Caracas and other urban hubs in search of work, making Venezuela one of the most urbanized countries in Latin America, with upwards of 90% of its population living in cities today.[4] It also became the first country in the region to be a net importer of food, as it was cheaper to import food with petroleum dollars than to produce it.[5] Such conditions facilitated development of a powerful food import and distribution complex, controlled by national and international corporate conglomerates. As a producer of a high demand commodity and a voracious consumer of food imports, Venezuela became firmly inserted into the global economy in ways that have rendered it particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in global oil and food prices and to domestic inflation. The companies responsible for food imports and distribution have been able to use these conditions to their advantage in certain ways. For instance, since 1983, when the Venezuelan bolivar suffered a sharp devaluation against the US dollar, driving up inflation, a common practice has been to align product prices with black market currency rates as opposed to official (regulated) currency rates, further fueling inflation in the process.[6] Venezuela’s ability to import food through oil earnings in the past did not mean that its population was well fed. Indeed, the imports tended to be at prices well out of reach of the country’s poor majority. In 1989, then-President Andrés Pérez signed a structural adjustment deal with the International Monetary Fund, causing abrupt surges in food and fuel prices; the price of bread rose by over 600%.[7] For the over 60% of the population already living in poverty, enough was enough. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into Caracas from surrounding impoverished hillside communities, protesting in the streets and looting shops. The government responded to this massive mobilization by ordering the military to open fire on the protesters. The official death toll was 276 civilians, with actual deaths estimated to be much higher. Efforts toward change At the beginning of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution in 1999, with still over half of the population facing hunger and poverty, both the government and citizens identified food production and provisioning as strategic priorities—and significant strides have been made in the years since. On the production end, the state has made substantial reinvestments in agriculture, including an agrarian reform process to redistribute large landholdings and support small- and mid-scale farmers and fishers. On the distribution end, strategies have included increased availability of basic food items at subsidized and regulated prices and provision of free meals via school and workplace programs as well as community-based feeding sites. These efforts have made historic gains in food security, as recognized by FAO, but they are mainly separated projects rather than systemic shifts. That is, even with domestic production reinvigorated and the population better fed, the country’s powerful longstanding food import and distribution complex has remained largely unaltered. Today, Venezuela’s food and medicine supply is mostly controlled by twenty companies,[8] and one of these, Polar, is responsible for eight of the items in Venezuela’s basic food basket, according to the Minister of Agriculture.[9] For instance, Polar is responsible for 62% of the market for pre-cooked corn flour used for corn patties, called arepas, that form an essential part of the Venezuelan diet.[10] Scarcity amidst abundance? What is going on in Venezuela today? While periodic food shortages are nothing new, particularly at politically heightened moments, for more than three years the country has experienced ongoing shortages of particular basic food products in addition to shortages of medicines and personal hygiene items such as soap, toilet paper, menstrual supplies, and diapers. It is the particularity of the missing items that is essential – and often overlooked or distorted in media reports. There is no overall shortage of food and other basic goods in Venezuela. What is missing from supermarket shelves are particular essential items, while others are in abundance. There is a lack of milk, while dairy products such as yogurt and cheese are available. There is a lack of pre-cooked corn flour, while other corn-based products such as porridge are available. There is a lack of coffee, another Venezuelan essential, while teas, hot chocolate, and other hot beverage mixes abound. The plot thickens when one leaves the supermarket and goes out into the streets. Prepared coffee is available on every street corner, and in every cafe. Areperas selling arepas with all sort of fillings are ubiquitous. Why, then, are essential items missing from supermarket shelves? The two most common arguments of the distribution companies are that a) the regulated prices set by the government to ensure accessibility are too low, providing a disincentive to distributors and b) with the plummeting of oil prices, insufficient dollars are available for import of necessary primary materials. When Venezuelan economist and Universidad Simón Bolívar professor Pasqualina Curcio put these claims to the test in her extensive investigation of the country’s current economic situation, she had some interesting findings.[11] First, several of the missing products have not been regulated since 2010, and among those that are regulated, the government has raised prices in an effort to incentivize distributors several times recently, but this has not resulted in increased availability. Second, the shortages began to intensify in 2013, before oil prices plummeted and while dollars were still readily available. Even once oil prices dropped and dollars became less available, the government continued to prioritize dollars for food import, and by their own accounting, the production levels of Venezuela’s major food companies have been stable or have even increased in that time. Curcio also found a correlation between intensity of food shortages and politically important moments, such as the lead-up to elections. Could it be that the shortages are manufactured? Many food sovereignty activists see it as no coincidence that Polar, the country’s largest food company, responsible for many of the items missing from shelves, is owned by a well-known member of the political opposition to the government. Regardless of what is driving the shortages, there is no doubt they are taking a toll on the population. For most people, the only ways to access basic products are to wait in extremely long lines when and where they are available—and it is important to note that this task falls disproportionately upon women. Another option is to buy basic products as contraband on the street through the parallel market, where they are sold at exponentially inflated prices. Here it bears emphasis again that the shortages are of specific products, so other food remains available. For instance, Venezuela is largely self-sufficient in fruits, vegetables and root crops, which are mostly produced by small- and mid-scale farmers. As these are distributed through decentralized networks, they have for the most part been unaffected by the shortages and are abundant in street markets around the country. However, as people substitute available products for unavailable ones (e.g., cassava, potatoes, and plantains in place of corn flour, pasta, and other processed carbohydrates), increased demand, together with high inflation and speculation, is driving up food prices overall, both in shops and on the streets. The result is an immensely challenging and stressful situation for most Venezuelans as they strive to feed their families. A look at impacts Beyond the psychological and economic impacts of the shortages, lines, and high prices, what are the physical effects? How are levels of hunger and nutrition being impacted? Here we will share both what we know and don’t know. What we do know is that based on the most recent food intake statistics available at the end of 2015, Venezuelans were consuming a daily average of 3092 calories, which is well above the FAO’s recommendation of 2720 for food security, but down from 2011 when average consumption was 3221 calories.[12] There are several reflections to be made. First, averages do not tell us about impacts on the most vulnerable populations. The flip side, however, is that Venezuela has a host of social programs specifically targeted at most vulnerable populations, which has likely contributed to keeping the caloric averages high. Second, averages also do not tell us anything about food quality. Some argue current conditions are driving people toward more limited and less healthy dietary options, while others argue just the opposite– that as processed options are less available, people are opting for more nutritious whole foods as replacements. Likely there is some of both happening, and data is not yet available to tell us much more. Finally, in the months since these statistics were released, shortages and price inflation have both intensified. Data is not yet available to tell us if average caloric intake has dropped further, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it likely has. According to the National Institute of Nutrition, however, the situation is being carefully monitored and Venezuelans’ caloric intake as a whole continues to remain well above the recommended minimum. The bottom line? Indeed, people are having a harder time accessing food right now in Venezuela. The situation is serious and needs to be addressed urgently. Is Venezuela in the midst of a humanitarian crisis? No, not according to Venezuela’s Department of Health, international authorities such as the FAO, or our own observations and numerous interviews with community organizers and citizens. Are people eating dogs? We recently asked people in working class rural and urban communities in six different states about this rumor; a common response, after initial shock, was “well, hot dogs, sure…” And rioting? So far riots have been isolated incidents and disproportionately in opposition-led areas, although the situation merits close monitoring and further investigation.[13] Why, then, the extreme media distortion? Here it is important to look at the broader picture. While the media is painting a desperate situation in Venezuela, the opposition-controlled national assembly is calling for the ousting of President Maduro and the US is calling to extend economic sanctions. Both are using the “humanitarian crisis” as justification–and the media is reflecting these claims rather than the much more complex reality on the ground.[14] Responses While the government can still do more in its campaign to root out corruption in both the private and public sectors as well as implement further reforms in the currency exchange system, it certainly has not been sitting back in the face of the shortages. On the contrary, both the government and communities are taking the situation seriously, ramping up existing social protections while piloting new approaches. Among the latter are Local Provisioning and Production Committees, known as CLAPs, which have rapidly formed across the country in recent months. CLAPs are partnerships between grassroots organizations and the government to provide an alternative food distribution network in all 24 states. CLAPs have a twofold purpose. In the immediate term, they are working to combat lines, shortages, and speculation by delivering basic food products directly to people. The government purchases goods directly from both private and state enterprises, which the CLAPs distribute house to house based on community censuses. The project is seen as a temporary stop-gap solution to the current shortages, aimed at the most vulnerable fifth of the population. In the longer term, CLAPs are also intended to engage in local food production and processing. In tandem is a major push for urban agriculture, overseen by a newly formed Ministry of Urban Agriculture. A recent hundred-day planting campaign involving 29,000 urban productive spaces throughout the country aims to increase the amount of fresh produce, eggs, fish, and animal protein available locally.[15] These efforts are complemented by a renewed push for production in the countryside. Meanwhile, social movements are seizing the moment to forge deeper transformation toward food sovereignty. Driven by necessity, unprecedented numbers of people are engaging and re-engaging in agriculture, from community farms to backyard patios, and in the process, exchanging seeds, bartering goods, and creating new local enterprises. A reduced supply of industrial agriculture inputs is also driving a transition toward organic practices and agroecology, in what some are likening to Cuba’s special period. The shortages are also causing a shift from processed foods and a renewed appreciation of local foods and traditional foodways. Many activists see these developments as elements of a new food system, a project they have been trying to advance for many years. This transformative vision is reflected in the country’s newly adopted seed law, pushed forward by social movements, which bans GMOs while protecting locally-produced seeds of Venezuela’s peasant, Indigenous, and Afro-descendent communities.[16] It is also reflected in the Feria Conuqera, a highly popular monthly alternative market held in Caracas, featuring agroecological and artisanal alternatives to many of the products missing from supermarket shelves, from arepa mixes made from plantains, cassava, and fresh corn, to homemade soaps, deodorants, and other basic goods. Plan Pueblo a Pueblo, a grassroots project to forge direct people-to-people links between urban and rural communities, is also having success: in just over a year, this initiative has reached more than 40,000 urban families with affordable fresh foods while working to build a new food system across the urban-rural divide. A key mechanism enabling this effort to expand so rapidly is that it works through already established citizen-led social institutions known as comunas. According to food activist Gabriel Gil, “the current crisis is pushing us to organize—and the comunas are key vehicles for doing so.” Questioning the headlines While hunger anywhere deserves high-level media coverage, it bears asking why Venezuela, a country which, by many indicators, has made important advances against hunger and poverty, is being targeted daily for dire coverage that does not reflect reality on the ground. Furthermore, why are the challenges being covered (albeit in a distorted manner), but not the many innovative and successful responses, from an explosion of urban agriculture, to an agroecological transition, to unprecedented levels of citizen organization around food production and provisioning? The answers to this are multifold, complex, and subject to different perspectives and interpretations, but we hope readers are encouraged to seek out more information before taking current news reports at face value. Christina Schiavoni is a PhD researcher focused on agrarian studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, Netherlands. She has been following food politics in Venezuela for the past decade and is currently in Venezuela doing research in this area. William Camacaro, MFA, originally from Venezuela, is co-founder of the Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle of New York and is an artist, radio host at WBAI, Pacifica Network and activist in New York City. The authors would like to extend a special thanks to Siena Chrisman, Fred Mills, Eric Holt-Giménez and Ahna Kruzic for their input and editing assistance. Notes [1] FAO (2015) ‘Venezuela and FAO create SANA, a new cooperation programme to eliminate hunger.’ . [2] Schiavoni, C. (2015) ‘ The Venezuelan Food Sovereignty Experiment’ . [3] Lander, E. (2014). ‘Venezuela: Terminal crisis of the rentier petro-state model?’ . [4] Wilpert, G. (2006) ‘Land for People Not for Profit in Venezuela,’ Rosset, P. Patel, R. and M. Courville, eds., Promised Land, 249-264. Oakland, CA: Food First Books. [5] Ibid. [6] Boza, T. (2014) La Guerra contra el Pueblo: Reflexiones para el Contraataque Popular. Maracaibo: Fundación Construyendo Ciudadanía. [7] Hardy, C. (2007). Cowboy in Caracas: A North American’s Memoir of Venezuela’s Democratic Revolution. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Books. [8] Curcio, P. (2016). ‘Apenas 20 empresas controlan la oferta de alimentos y medicinas en el país’ . [9] Edgard, R. (2016) ‘Los Clap: El resuelve de los pobres’ . [10] Curcio, P. (2016). ‘Apenas 20 empresas controlan la oferta de alimentos y medicinas en el país’ . [11] Personal communication with Pasqualina Curcio on 23 June 2016. Also see: Curcio, P. (2016) ‘Los CLAP´S: ¿camino para la paz económica?’ . [12] Personal communication with National Nutrition Institute representatives on 27 June 2015. See also ‘Memoria y Cuenta 2015, Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Alimentación (MINPPAL) – Tomo I’ . [13] Misión Verdad (2016) ‘Cartografía de los saqueos: actores, tácticas y métodos’ . [14] See Also, for a news clip (in Spanish) of former commander of US Southern Command John Kelly saying that the US would consider intervening in Venezuela to avert a “humanitarian crisis” involving lack of food and water, see minute 3 this video by CNN: [15] See [16] Camacaro, W., Mills, F. and C. Schiavoni (2016) ‘Venezuela Passes Law Banning GMOs, by Popular Demand’ <>.

Submitted by fred on Fri, 07/15/2016 - 12:08


In Venezuela’s Difficult Times the Grassroots are Stronger

By Tamara Pearson

It’s been three years now of food shortages, inflation, and queues in Venezuela, and the millions of people involved in community and movement organizing have been the most affected. But they’ve also defied right-wing and general expectations, and even perhaps the expectations of the Maduro government, and have become stronger and better organized as a result of the hardships.

‘We can feel the difference between the quality of life we had four years ago – when things had improved so much. Everything is extremely expensive. You go out to buy a kilo of rice, and four days later the price has gone up, and it’s hard to deal with because our salaries don’t go up every four days,’ Jose Loaiza told me. A worker in charge of sustainable development for the mountain town of Los Nevados for Merida’s Teleferico (cable car) and a member of an urban agriculture organization, La Minga, Loaiza was one of four people I interviewed to get a sense of how the grassroots have been affected by these difficult times – times that have been utterly sensationalised and lied about by the mainstream media.

‘When Chavez came to power, 80 per cent of people were poor. We drank milk once a fortnight and ate meat once a week. Most people didn’t have access to proteins,’ Joel Linares, a Caracas based community organizer who also works with rural workers’ councils, explained.

He described the current crisis as a result of politics, and ‘consumerism that isn’t working’ in an oil based, urban-centric economy where people don’t produce what they consume. Vegetables and fish are available, but they are expensive, and the basic goods that people are used to like rice, beans, and milk can only be obtained on the black market, or by queueing outside a supermarket from 4 am. But businesses seem to have no problem getting hold of those products, and it’s easy to get a pizza, coffee, or bread if you can afford it.

‘It’s not that these things don’t exist, but the mechanism of distribution is still controlled by the private sector,’ Rachael Boothroyd Rojas, a Caracas community council representative and journalist with said. And that is a private sector which has profited greatly from the crisis, and which has an interest is bringing down Chavismo.

A boom in urban agriculture

But the food situation has led to changes in how people get food, and in the types of food they consume. More people are growing their own food, and the traditional Venezuelan diet heavy on deep fried carbs is being challenged, with oil and cornflour hard to come by.

Loaiza described a community meeting he attended recently where people growing food on their windowsills and patios and in public parks came together to collectivize their experiences. ‘People have realised that they have to take advantage of what space they have. Before, no one used the green spaces in housing complexes, and now they are growing food there. Colonial culture forced habits of buying everything on us, and now we’re breaking with that,’ he said.

‘Five years ago I knew perhaps eight people doing urban agriculture, but now I know about 500 people,’ he said.

‘Our community garden is still active, even though it was affected by the drought,’ Eliodina Villareal, a communal council spokesperson in an opposition-dominated part of Merida, explained.

Further, food exchange, with neighbours swapping goods like pasta for margarine, has become common.

‘People are starting to understand how food works. There is no way to move forward until communities become involved in food and production. And that means that the communal councils and communes are less abstract now,’ Boothroyd Rojas said.

Where community organizations were previously focused on holding cultural events and fixing a road hole, for example, now many urban communes are trying to produce at least half their vegetables in urban gardens, and are buying the rest directly from rural producers.

The complexities of community organized food distribution

My own communal council, La Columna, covering four blocks of central Merida, has gone from meetings of five to 12 people in 2012, to around 90. Others testify that their community organization has been strengthened, that they are holding more and bigger meetings, and working more with other councils.

‘People are coming on their own accord, seeking support and organization to solve the situation. Through the government initiative, the CLAP (Local Committee of Supply and Production), we’ve sold bags of basic foods at very cheap prices. So people want to be included, but now the issue is how to meet the needs of all the families, and guaranteeing that they get the food, and not the bachaqueros (food speculators),’ Villareal said.

The CLAP are facing a range of obstacles. Organizers are leaving meetings to be in food queues, and they are exhausted with the work involved in obtaining basic resources like ink or paper for their communal work, or the days spent in organizing a truck for food. Food arrives to communities through the CLAP once a month, but Linares said that wasn’t often enough. Also, he said sometimes the CLAP face stigmatisation for not completely solving the food problems people are facing.

‘The people’s hunger is a battle weapon,’ Linares said, as he talked about the right-wing generated violence, combined with the politics of shortages, aimed at bringing about a sense of desperation. At the same time, people are having to combat corruption at various levels and are pushing for more control over production and distribution in order to guarantee efficiency of government. ‘A social and solidarity economy’ is the solution to such problems, and an alternative to wasteful consumerism, Linares argued.

When the communities get their food directly from farmers, they are attacking the insane speculation that happens through middlemen. ‘In our communal council we organized a vegetable market. We paid for the transport to bring the vegetables from the countryside. And it makes you wonder, if they sold us tomatoes at 450 bolivars ($45.00) a kilo, and the people in the markets are selling them for thousands of bolivars, they must be making so much profit,’ Boothroyd Rojas said.

She described a further difficulty that some communities have faced, with the army sometimes stopping these food shipments. It has meant that some councils have had to use militia to protect their food from the army. The government appears to be losing complete control over its security forces, as they sense that the political forces have changed, with a right-wing parliament. ‘The right wing wants to revoke communal land rights, and some security forces are carrying out a dirty war in response to this dynamic,’ she explained.

Rural communities face some big hurdles too, but also have some advantages. Far from urban centres, it is even harder for them to access basic products, or to request funding. Loaiza said that with a return trip from Los Nevados to Merida costing 3,000 bolivars ($300.00), amounting to 20 per cent of a monthly wage, any paper work is difficult.

On the other hand, rural communities have been producing food for their own consumption for a long time. For those rural movements and groups who have also been organizing, their time to play an important role in Venezuela has come.

Better and worse human beings

‘To grow hurts, and Venezuelans are growing,’ Linares said. ‘The crisis has made us stronger,’ Loaiza argued. And even in Villareal’s opposition dominated area, there is empathy among neighbours ‘without political stripes being important’.

‘People are learning to be more solidarious, to be mindful of the elderly adults who live alone and need our support. We’re very motivated to keep fighting,’ she said.

But Loaiza also identified ‘two Venezuelas’. He described a ‘revolution that tries to get positive things out of everything and is dedicated to building’ and on the other hand, people who are gravely affected by the problems, but aren’t doing much about them and are affected by ‘anti-values’ such as individualism and selfishness. The first group, he explained, have spent years in collectives and ‘feel the solidarity’, so they don’t easily fall for the anti-values.

On the other hand, Boothroyd Rojas described the ruthlessness of people trying to make money out of the shortages. ‘There are a lot of scams. You feel under attack because every time you go to buy something, you are up against this battle. It makes people aggressive, and it’s exhausting. In 2012, for example, the empanadas were great, full to the brim with meat. And now people are charging for basically an empty empanada. You’re being scammed and people are making money – there’s no solidarity between the market sellers and the people.’

She also noted how tense it is, not just because of the food, but an overwhelmed health system. ‘The two hospitals I’ve been to aren’t like how the media portrays, with floors covered in blood, it’s not that bad, but going to crowded hospitals is stressful.’

Grassroots and the National Government

The people I talked to differed in their analysis of the effectiveness of government initiatives in light of the food problems. Most people are frustrated with the national government’s response, but they have different ways of framing it. For some, the ‘economic war’ waged by the right-wing has made it difficult for the government to do much, while for others, the government has less connection now with the social movements and organizations and is too dependent on a stalling strategy.

‘The only solutions that are being developed at the moment is from the grassroots, but they are slow to have fruition as well,’ Boothroyd Rojas said. ‘I don’t think we can rely on the CLAPand the state for food, we need to change the structures that mean people are being charged too much, in a way that we would be protected if the opposition were to get into government, because they wouldn’t maintain any state involvement in food distribution.’

‘The government is responding to problem after problem, but the long term plans are coming from the communities. The CLAP are great, but the government isn’t organized enough to bring food to the whole country, and it’s very top down,’ she said. For example, the government stipulated that the CLAP must have a member from the Francisco de Miranda Front and from Inamujer, but those organizations aren’t present in all communities.

She said the grassroots don’t feel like they have much influence over the government or over the ‘course of things coming in the next few months’. Meanwhile, grassroots initiatives are also somewhat fragmented, with a lack of ‘national expression of people’s politics’, but there’s still a lot of room to make that happen.

Looking to the Future

The current situation in Venezuela is unsustainable. ‘The future doesn’t look good,’ Villareal said. Communities are worried about what the right-wing could do in the national assembly, that it might eliminate the communal council and commune laws. However, even with a majority in the assembly, the right-wing is still acting like an opposition: more focused on delegitimising the ideas of Chavismo than on policy making.

‘It’s questionable if the right-wing even want a recall referendum to remove the sitting president, Nicolas Maduro, and if they really want to take power, as power means responsibility for sorting out this situation, and it would be clear they don’t really have any solutions,’ Boothroyd Rojas said.

‘But we are changing the way we consume, we’re learning to value what we have and to think and create, so we know that we’ll overcome this,’ Villareal concluded.