Food Shortage Sparks Cuba-Style Rationing
Amid a continuing food shortage, the Venezuelan government has announced a rationing system similar to Cuba's.
February 24, 2008
BY Casto Ocando
El Nuevo Herald
Venezuela has adopted an unprecedented system of food rationing similar to the ration cards used in Cuba, after several months of food shortages that have caused popular discontent.
Photo: Food shelves are empty in Caracas, Venezuela along with shortages of beef, chicken and milk.
The Ministry of Nutrition announced last week that beneficiaries of the government's food distribution program would only be allowed one purchase a day. The amount of food allocated to each family would be based on a ''social study'' the government performed, it said.
QUEUING FOR FOOD
Earlier this year, the government created a distribution network known as Pdval -- financed by the state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA -- to solve shortages of groceries like beef, eggs and milk that have sparked long lines in recent months.
According to Asdrubal Chávez, President Hugo Chávez's cousin and the coordinator for Pdval, the distribution centers will now keep a registry of families shopping at each center to ensure that no home receives a ''surplus'' of staple products.
Under the new rationing system, government distribution centers will open at 8 a.m. and each customer will be given a control number that will allow him to shop for food that day. The customer will also fill out a registry card with his name, ID number and the products and quantities to be purchased.
Business groups and the government blame each other for the shortages. The Venezuelan economy is actually booming and the country is awash in money thanks to record-high oil prices -- its main export. Chávez contends that businesses are boycotting his socialist revolution, while business groups blame the problems on the government's price controls.
''If it weren't for the revolution, the people would have already starved to death,'' said Chávez at a news conference on Friday. ``We will not rest until we solve all of these serious problems.''
The Venezuelan government has taken a series of measures to confront the shortages, though none has shown results.
It has used huge amounts of PDVSA revenues to import staples and has waived taxes on basic food. It is also combating rampant corruption at the other government-subsidized distribution network, Mercal, which was created in 2003.
According to a report from Venezuela's Bolivarian News Agency (ABN), by the end of 2007 Mercal had reported 340 cases of fraud involving the sale of subsidized products to private retailers. This year alone, about 57 new cases of similar fraudulent activities have been reported in relation to Mercal.
Luis Rodríguez, executive director of the Association of Supermarkets and Convenience Stores, said the shortages are not transitory but structural and they have been mounting for at least the past eight months.
According to Rodríguez, supermarkets throughout Venezuela are experiencing shortages of chicken, beef, pork, dairy products, eggs, flour and tomato derivatives, such as ketchup.
Rodríguez blames the shortages on price controls established by the government, which have left producers with little reason to increase production.
Hiram Gaviria, a former Minister of Agriculture and now director of an agricultural trade union known as Agro-Nutritional Alliance, said the new restrictions will make the situation worse and give even less motivation for internal production and normal food supply.
Food shortages already are taking a political toll on Chávez. According to a poll released Friday by the polling firm Hinterlaces, 79 percent of Venezuelans believe shortages are the same or getting worse, while 42 percent blame Chávez.
The shortages also have resulted in isolated and spontaneous episodes of looting during the past couple of weeks. In Maracaibo, the country's second largest city, residents of the poor Cristo de Aranza neighborhood forced their way into a Mercal distribution center on Thursday, and took everything on a single night -- including the coolers and air-conditioning system.
In the western state of Zulia, around 200 people walked away on Tuesday night with two tons of milk, sugar and pasta destined for 155 Mercal distribution centers, police said.
In Puerto Ordaz, in eastern Venezuela, people intercepted and looted a truck belonging to food-distributor Grupo Polar on Wednesday. According to press reports, within minutes dozens of people emptied a shipment of cornmeal, rice, cooking oil and detergent.
A few weeks ago residents of a town called Sabanetas -- Chávez's birthplace -- broke into a Mercal distribution center and looted it. Shortly after, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, the president's father and the regional governor, ordered the militarization of the area to prevent further incidents.
Casto Ocando can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org