Monday June 20, 2016

Venezuela food shortage pushes country to breaking point

A demonstrator throws a molotov cocktail against riot policemen during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela. People queue to buy basic food and household items outside a supermarket in the poor neighbourhood of Lidice, in Caracas, on May 31, 2016.

A demonstrator throws a molotov cocktail against riot policemen during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela. People queue to buy basic food and household items outside a supermarket in the poor neighbourhood of Lidice, in Caracas, on May 31, 2016. (CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS/RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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It's the simple, yet telling chant that has being heard across the streets of Venezuela: "We want food."

In recent weeks, riots and looting have been on the rise as the country's food shortage worsens. According to one study, 87 per cent of Venezuelans say they don't have enough money to buy food. 

Venezuela Protest

A hungry crowd chanting "We want food" assembles a few blocks from the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, on June 2. (The Associated Press)

On Monday's program, As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Girish Gupta, a Reuters journalist based in Venezuela's capital city of Caracas. Here is part of their conversation.

Carol Off: Girish, how are people in Venezuela coping with this food shortage?

Girish Gupta: Well, they're really struggling. People have been telling me they hadn't eaten since breakfast the previous morning. One woman told me she had one mango the previous day. They were queuing up for anything they could get. Eventually they came out with two bags of pasta, but that's really not enough for these people. And this is incredibly dangerous for the government here — we're seeing 10 or so lootings every single day, according to one NGO. People have guns, and they're using them.

Girish Gupta

Girish Gupta is a Reuters journalist, based in Caracas, Venezuela. (TWITTER)

CO: Is the food shortage affecting the people with the poorest levels of income, or is it across the board?

GG: Originally, it was the lowest levels of income. The ones who were a little bit richer —  say, me

[for example] with foreign currency earnings —  we were OK, because we could get stuff at inflated prices. Now, even those goods are drying up. So for people earning $10 to $20 a month, it's near impossible. 

CO: When you go into the shops in Caracas, what do you see?

GG: They're empty. And you're very unlikely to get into them, because there are queues of literally hundreds or thousands of people. This is all over the country —  and especially worse in the poor parts of the country. 

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Inside a looted supermarket in Maracay, 100km from Caracas. (AFP/DIARIO EL PERIODIQUITO/GETTY IMAGES)

CO: This is an extraordinary position for Venezuela to be in, given that not very long ago during the oil boom, this country was doing so well. There was a lot of wealth — and now, a country that's capable of producing its own food doesn't have anything to eat. What's behind that?

GG: This is a country where you've got mangos falling off trees. But of course, this is a real political and economic crisis. Around 13 years ago, Hugo Chavez's government introduced currency controls. That made it extremely difficult for people to get hard currency and dollars, which made it very difficult for them to import. Since then, production has really plummeted here. I don't see that this is going to fix itself relatively soon, because no government policy is coming in to ease the currency controls. Sadly, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Venezuela Protest

A woman confronts a National Guard soldier during a protest demanding food, a few blocks from Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on June 2, 2016. (ARIANA CUBILLOS/AP)

To hear more, take a listen to our full interview with Girish Gupta.