Venezuela's deepening food crisis sees ransacked stores, deadly riots

Venezuela’s second-largest city, Maracaibo, is one of the hardest hit places in a country that seems to be running out of almost everything — from bread to beer, from car parts to electricity.

Monitoring group says there are about 10 lootings per day around the country

A member of the National Guard guards a shop in Maracaibo city in late April. Shortages have raised fears of unrest. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

In the western Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, the line of people waiting to buy food at a state-run supermarket spills into the streets. Tempers flare as some try to cut to the front of the line.

The mood darkens when store managers announce that there's no food left on the shelves, only cleaning supplies.

As she waits in the blistering heat, Maria Luisa Barrios shields herself from the sun with a piece of cardboard and complains: "All they have is detergent. How am I going to eat detergent?"

Venezuela's second-largest city, Maracaibo is one of the hardest hit places in a country that seems to be running out of almost everything — from bread to beer, from car parts to electricity.

Shattered glass is seen at a store after a protest in Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, on April 27. (Diario Panorama/Reuters)

What started as persistent food shortages under President Hugo Chavez has turned into a food crisis under the Nicolas Maduro government, elected in 2013. A tour of Maracaibo last month showed the crisis is especially dire.

Socialist economic policies that have put the government in charge of much of the country's food production and distribution have dramatically reduced the supply of rice, pasta, milk and other basic staples.

Meanwhile, falling prices for oil, which accounts for nearly all of Venezuela's export income, mean President Maduro's government has far less money to import food.

Where there's food, looting follows

The result is that in the country with the world's largest oil reserves, people are ransacking grocery stores, restaurants, warehouses and even food delivery trucks. A Venezuelan monitoring group, Observatory for Violence, says there are about 10 lootings per day around the country, with food riots sometimes turning deadly.

Four people were killed during separate incidents last week as looters clashed with security forces. More than 400 people were arrested in the coastal city of Cumana, which was briefly placed under a de facto curfew after 20 stores were cleaned out.

A man who was waiting in line at a grocery store argues with a Bolivarian National Police officer as people try to buy food sold at regulated prices in Caracas. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

The Organization of American States (OAS) will hold an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss the crisis in Venezuela. It will also debate whether or not the Maduro government is violating democratic norms by holding political prisoners, ignoring the opposition-controlled legislature and blocking efforts to hold a recall election.

Maduro's six-year-term expires in 2019. But the opposition is gathering signatures for a referendum to remove him from office.

If the vote is held this year, new elections would be called. But electoral authorities, who are loyal to the president, are trying to delay the balloting until next year. Should that happen and Maduro loses — a likely outcome given the magnitude of the country's problems — he would be replaced by his vice-president and the ruling Socialist Party would remain in power.

Last month, Luis Almagro, secretary general of the OAS, blasted Maduro for sabotaging the recall effort.

"To deny the people that vote, to deny them the possibility of deciding, would make you just another petty dictator, like so many this hemisphere has had," Almagro wrote in an open letter to the Venezuelan leader.

Maduro responded by calling Almagro, a left-leaning former foreign minister of Uruguay, "a longtime traitor … a CIA agent."

Some analysts say the main threat to Maduro's survival is the growing chaos. In April, Maracaibo residents vented their frustrations by setting up roadblocks, burning tires, looting stores and clashing with riot police.

Maracaibo sits just 130 kilometres from the Colombian border, which aggravates the city's food shortages. Cheap government-subsidized food — which sells for less than the cost of production — is often smuggled into Colombia, where it is sold for huge profits.

City once a showcase for progress

Back in January 2010, then-president Hugo Chavez nationalized the Alamcenes Exito supermarket chain, which had been controlled by French retailer Casino, after accusing the company of price gouging. (Isaac Urrutia/Reuters)

Maracaibo used to be a showcase for progress. It was built on the shores of Lake Maracaibo, where Venezuela first struck oil a century ago. Maracaibo is home to the country's first bank, movie theatre and public lighting system.

Now, the city has become a symbol of degradation and breakdowns.

Adding to the frustrations over food shortages, some neighbourhoods in the city go without power for up to 12 hours a day. That's due to a nationwide electricity shortage caused by an El Nino-induced drought and lack of maintenance of government-run power plants and grids.

Maracaibo intersections become clogged with vehicles because the traffic lights don't work. The power outages knock out fans and air conditioners in one of the country's hottest cities, where the temperature often nears 40 C.

Customers enter a bakery that was looted the day before in the Petare neighbourhood of Caracas on June 10. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

In a working-class barrio north of the city centre, Juleidi Ruiz says that blackouts often force her and the 13 other adults living in her house — plus a scrum of kids  — into the street to seek relief from the heat in the middle of the night. When the power comes back on, they rush to wash clothes, cook lunch and take care of other chores that require electricity.

Outages affecting elderly man's dialysis

Family patriarch Rodolfo Ruiz, a 79-year-old retired school clerk, points out that his kidneys are failing. When the lights go out, so does his dialysis machine.

"Dialysis is the only thing keeping me alive," he says.

Rather than working overtime to solve these problems, Maracaibo officials are hamstrung by bizarre rules. At City Hall, the building was closed on a recent Friday morning. To save electricity, Maduro in April ordered public employees to work just two days per week. The decree was lifted this month, but government workers are still on reduced hours.

Mayor Eveling Rosales was working out of the transportation department, one of the few functioning city offices. She claims the Maduro government is sabotaging her city.

Oil royalties and other federal monies make up 80 per cent of her budget. But Rosales claims Maduro is withholding these funds because she belongs to an opposition party that's trying to oust him through a recall election.

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      In addition, her husband is one of Venezuela's best known political prisoners. A former mayor, governor and presidential candidate, Manuel Rosales was arrested eight months ago on what human rights groups call trumped-up charges.

      The Maduro government did not respond to requests for comment. But the president often blames the country's crisis on the opposition, which he claims is hoarding food, bombing power plants and plotting coups.

      Asked about this, Rosales just rolls her eyes.

      Venezuela "is upside down," she says. "It's like Alice in Wonderland."

      About the Author

      John Otis is a U.S. journalist who reports from South America. He is the author of the 2010 book Law of the Jungle about Colombia's guerrilla war.