Thursday, October 6, 2016

In Starving Venezuela, Corruption & Hunger Intertwine

Mismanagement has pushed Venezuela, a leading petrol exporter, to the brink of collapse

By: Spencer Cappelli
Produced & edited by: Madeline Keener

As evening descends on downtown Caracas, supermarkets and restaurants are busy hauling out the day’s worth of garbage. Before the sanitation workers can get there, however, others arrive: men, women and children. Desperate, driven by hunger, they rifle through scraps of food waste in the hope of salvaging a meal.
Liliana Ortega, a lawyer and the president of a prominent human rights group based in Caracas, says she can see these people scavenging — an increasingly normalized scene in hunger-stricken Venezuela — every day around 5 p.m. from her office in the capital city, four blocks from the presidential palace.
“I have worked 27 years in the public sector and I’ve never seen a level of human suffering this critical for want of medical and food supplies,” said Ortega in an email.
Historically low crude oil prices and the resulting devaluation of the Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, have buckled this formerly prosperous Latin American economy, the upshot of which has been a grave shortage of basic food and medical supplies for its ailing civilian population. Now, in the face of a growing political opposition emboldened by the crisis, the administration of President Nicolas Maduro is doubling down on the politics of scarcity.
This summer, a study from Simón Bolivar University found that 87 percent of Venezuelans reported not having enough money to buy food, according to a New York Times report.
“We have all modified our daily diets,” said Ortega. “The most common supplies in a Venezuelan diet — beans, rice, corn meal and dough — are very difficult to get and have access to. Most of the time we have to pay very high prices, so much so that they’ve practically become luxury items.”
Nicomedes Febres, a Venezuelan physician, said the supply shortages can be attributed to the nebulous intersection of declining imports from inflation, falling oil prices and governmental corruption and fecklessness.  
“In Venezuela, corruption has penetrated to the very heart of the society.”
According to Febres military personnel, currently tasked with the distribution of food in the country, are selling imports for a huge profit on the black market, where $1 has been exchanged for upwards of 1,100 Bolivars in recent weeks.
“Many of these government workers concede a good part of (their imported food) to their friends, who turn around and sell it at ten times its value,” said Febres in an email.
Protesters wanting to buy basic goods in 
Caracas, Venezuela.
Photo Courtesy of Carlos Díaz via Flickr
Scarcity has intensified public wariness of government bureaucracies that had previously earned a reputation for unscrupulous practices.
“In Venezuela, corruption has penetrated to the very heart of the society,” said Alicia Hernández, a Spanish journalist who has reported from Venezuela for outlets including Vice, Al Jazeera and the Spanish publication El Confidencial.
Hernández said that, in an attempt to curtail inflation, the government has resorted to such tactics as price capping, food rationing and the assignment of specific buying-days, which limit the days consumers can do their shopping. Violators who break with schedule have been severely punished. The military has proven, furthermore, to be a politically selective distributor of resources.
“There are people who have been told, ‘you are in opposition [to the government], so you will not receive one bag,” said Hernández.
This has proved a steep price to pay for many members of the political opposition who have supported calls for a presidential referendum, which would in turn send voters to the ballot boxes in an attempt to revoke President Maduro.
“Some people in my office … have been unable to gain access to the bags of food that the government distributes because they accuse them of having signed on in support of the (presidential) referendum,” said Ortega, the president of the human rights group.
Venezuela ranked 158 out of 168 countries surveyed by the watchdog group Transparency International in its corruption perception index for 2015. ­­
On Sept. 1, hundreds of thousands of citizens marched on Caracas in support of the referendum in an event being termed ‘The Great Taking of Caracas.’
Shoppers queue in a food line last month on 
Margarita island, Venezuela. 
The country has been rocked by 
food and supply shortages in the wake of a 
devastating economic collapse. 
Photo by Antonio Torres*
Still, many Venezuelans spend dozens of hours in food lines spanning kilometers each month.
“My life is a constant fight to get the essential supplies,” said Antonio Torres*, a 21-year old college student from Margarita Island. “I feel frustrated, I can't live a normal life, the most people in this country can't,” Torres said.
A survey from Caracas-based Datincorp said that 57 percent of all Venezuelans wanted to leave the country, the Miami Herald recently reported. Salvation, however, may not be just around the corner. 1-in-5 Latin Americans still live in poverty, despite regional economic growth in the first decade of the 21st century that bolstered a historically inclusive middle class.
José Jesús Milano Ferrer is a 23-year old student and political activist for the opposition party group Voluntad Popular (Popular Will). A recent article of his in the English-language publication Caracas Chronicles detailed plans to sell a family heirloom — an autographed copy of a popular book — to fund his passage to Argentina. There, he hopes to make a new life for himself.
“I feel hopeless and frustrated, lots of anger and tons of bad energies because it makes me feel bad that you heard and read and know about friends, relatives, that couldn’t eat 3 times in a day,” said Milano Ferrer in an email.
“Sometimes it makes you feel miserable when you pass over all that, colleagues that died because some ‘Malandro’ just decided that his cellphone (sic) worth his life, or anything you know?” Milano Ferrer said.  
Interviews with Ortega, Febres and Hernández translated from the Spanish by the author
*Name has been changed at request of source to protect identity

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