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Venezuela’s food chain is breaking and millions are starving

Ana Nuñez, a 62-year-old retired community worker in western Venezuela, says her meals often consist of just a few cornmeal pancakes known as arepas.

Even when she has money to buy groceries at the Maracaibo city flea market, she said, “Instead of high-quality groceries, they sell rubbish like animal skins and rotten cheese.”

A widespread gasoline shortage is the latest blow to domestic food production in Venezuela, preventing goods from entering the market and farmers refueling their tractors. Food production in this oil-rich nation, led by its socialist president Nicolas Maduro, had already been hampered by shortages of seeds and agrochemicals, price controls that made crops unprofitable, and government seizures of farms and food processing plants.

Venezuelans aren̵

7;t the only ones starving. Across Latin America, the economic blow caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has left millions of people unemployed and poor. From Mexico City to Santiago, people skip meals, stand in soup kitchens and beg, say United Nations organizations.

A recent report sponsored by the United Nations found that 9.3 million people in Venezuela did not have enough safe and nutritious food for normal human growth and development. A soup kitchen in Caracas.


Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press

However, conditions in Venezuela, which experienced the worst economic collapse in its history before the pandemic, are by far the worst.

In a recent report sponsored by the United Nations, Venezuela was described as the fourth worst food crisis in the world, lying just behind war-ravaged Yemen, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The report released in April by the Global Network Against Food Crises and the Food Security Information Network found that 9.3 million people – about a third of the Venezuelan population – did not have enough safe and nutritious food for normal human growth and growth over the past year had normal development. It has been found that 13% of Venezuelan children under the age of 5 are stunted and 30% are anemic.

“Although Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, it is currently one of the world’s most severely affected areas of acute food insecurity,” the report said.

This is in part because staples, like milk, cannot get into stores. Armando Chacín had produced 400 gallons of milk a day on his farm, but no gasoline means trucks are grounded. Mr Chacín cannot afford to buy black market fuel, which costs $ 10 a gallon, to supply the milk himself.

The collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry has made gasoline scarce.


Oscar B. Castillo for the Wall Street Journal

Instead of watching it go bad, he turns his milk into an artisanal cheese that can be stored longer and is easier to transport than milk.

“The gas shortage buried us,” said Chacín, president of the Venezuelan ranchers’ association.

In the fertile area near the Colombian border, tractors and combine harvesters sit idle while some farmers move their produce on the back of mules. In lower-lying areas near Lake Maracaibo, farmers lack gasoline to run water pumps and have lost thousands of hectares of crops to flooding, said José Urdaneta, who grows 100 hectares of plantains near the town of Sucre.

With his Ford pickup truck now costing $ 140 to refill, Mr Urdaneta has cut trips to his farm. He was late in applying fertilizers and pesticides and his yields fell 30%.

“In agriculture you have to do everything on time,” he said.

Venezuela depends on food imports, which make up 85% of the food supply. But these days, Mr Maduro’s authoritarian government has less money to import groceries because of the collapse of oil production, which accounted for almost all of the country’s export earnings.

US sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector under the Trump administration make it illegal to trade or do business with Venezuela’s national oil company. That said, it’s harder to import the gasoline the country needs.

Venezuela depends on food imports, which make up 85% of the food supply. A market in Maracaibo.


Luis Bravo / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

“While the food crisis did not start with US sanctions, it is safe to say that the sanctions did not make things difficult,” said Geoff Ramsey of the Washington Bureau for Latin America, a political group. “We are very concerned that the country is on the verge of irreversible catastrophe.”

The Maduro government is distributing boxes of staples to millions of residents, but deliveries are infrequent and US investigators say the program is full of corruption. Last year, US prosecutors accused Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and Maduro ally, of using shell companies to steal millions of dollars from the food handout program.

In June, Mr Saab was arrested in the African island nation of Cape Verde, whose government is considering a US request for extradition for money laundering.

One of Mr Saab’s attorneys did not respond to emails asking for comment.

The Maduro regime accuses the US of attempting to kidnap Mr Saab, who allegedly works on a humanitarian aid mission for Caracas.

The Ministry of Information, which handles requests for comment for the Venezuelan government, has not returned calls and emails.

Recently people were waiting outside a gas station in Maracaibo.


HENRY CHIRINOS / EPA / Shutterstock

Even when supermarket shelves are full, millions of Venezuelan families cannot afford enough to eat due to hyperinflation of 9,500% last year and high unemployment. According to the UN report, the monthly minimum wage of just a few dollars buys less than 5% of the staple food required for the average family.

“We were saved by the avocados and bananas that grow near our home,” says Carlos Alonso, a 35-year-old farm worker in the western state of Yaracuy.

Others rely on remittances from relatives living abroad, but those money transfers have been cut in half due to Covid-19 quarantines and economic standstill, said Susana Raffalli, a food security advisor in Venezuela. She said Mr Maduro is reluctant to acknowledge the scale of the crisis or to allow the World Food Program and other international aid groups to distribute the massive amounts of food Venezuela needs.

“This is not yet a famine, but we are in a food emergency,” said Ms. Raffalli. “The food supply system has completely collapsed.”

Maria Planchart once lived comfortably in Caracas and aspired to become a lawyer. In this documentary from WSJ Films, we follow her struggle to feed her family.

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