For much of Venezuela’s population, food has become a luxury. Once the envy of Latin America, the oil-rich nation has become synonymous with starvation and suffering. Food lines have replaced supermarket queues, as more and more citizens in cities like Caracas desperately wait hours for even a chance at anything that could potentially feed their families. When asked to describe what the average “shopping” trip was like for a resident of a Caracas slum, Gabriela Vegas remarked, “Together with a group of fifteen women, we would take some cardboard boxes with us and sleep in front of the supermarket. More than once, we just wasted our time because there was no food, and I had to come back home, empty-handed. Do you know how that feels?” This has become the new reality for millions of Venezuelans trapped in a cycle of poverty and hunger. What was once a thriving democracy has transformed into an increasingly authoritarian failure of a state in which even the most basic of necessities have become politicized. With the crisis in Caracas deteriorating, food, one of the most basic of necessities, has become a pawn in President Nicolás Maduro’s political games.
The origins of the current humanitarian crisis in Venezuela have their roots in the administration of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez. A charismatic left-wing populist, Chávez came to power in a time of crisis for Venezuelan democracy. The nation’s system of two-party rule, in which two major factions switched off control of the government, had essentially broken down, with lack of electoral competition leading to corruption and general fiscal mismanagement. Economic crises throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s culminated in mass riots in the capital of Caracas, known as El Caracazo, that left hundreds dead and the city in ruin. The breakdown of democracy and economic collapse created fertile ground for the up-and-coming Colonel Chávez who, after a failed coup attempt, was elected to power on a left-wing platform promising radical socio-economic change for all Venezuelans.
Chávez’s administration began with widespread popular support, especially in the urban slums of cities like Caracas and Maracaibo. Primarily through funds redirected from the lucrative state oil company PDVSA, Chávez was able to institute a series of social programs that further endeared him to Venezuela’s poor, many of whom viewed him as a fatherly figure determined to fight the interests of the corrupt elite. These programs included food subsidies and the creation of government-run supermarkets, which, during the oil boom, ensured that poor Venezuelans had access to the food they needed to feed their families. However, as oil prices began to fall and the economic consequences of widespread mismanagement began to become more and more apparent, the windfall of cash that once funded the programs began to dwindle. Instead of taking the necessary reforms to tackle the evident upcoming economic crisis, Chávez and his compatriots doubled down on his heavy-handed policies, refusing to acknowledge the realities of their choices.
The consequences of Chávez’s, and later Maduro’s, decisions have become dire. With oil sales accounting for as much as 50% of GDP, the fall in oil prices that began in 2014 had dire effects on the Venezuelan economy. As the economy collapsed, inflation skyrocketed. By the end of 2018, prices were doubling on average every 19 days, making the Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, essentially useless and ensuring that average Venezuelans had no way to tell how much their savings would be worth when they woke up in the morning. The government supply of food that had once been a blessing to Venezuela’s poor was now becoming an ever-increasing burden, with price controls instituted by the regime ensuring that stores couldn’t turn a profit, leading to massive shortages and empty shelves. Millions of Venezuelans now had no regular access to a reliable food supply. Scores of people began to go hungry, creating a humanitarian crisis unmatched by almost any country not at war. In 2017, Venezuelans lost an average of 17 pounds, in what commonly became referred to as the “Maduro diet”, due to the perception that Maduro’s administration was not only not doing enough to deal with the crisis, but in fact causing it.
It was at this point that the Maduro administration began its seemingly-sinister politically-motivated aid programs. Understanding that access to food had become one of the most important issues in Venezuelan political life, the administration began to use the prospect of a full meal to buy votes from the 90% of Venezuelans now living in poverty. While the social programs instituted by Chávez often earned the votes of Venezuela’s poor, Maduro has moved to further capitalize on the political aspect of government-supplied aid. The monopoly on access to food ensured that the government could “buy” votes by supplying supporters with extra rations during presidential and legislative elections.
During his bid for reelection, Maduro was quoted as saying “I give, you give” in reference to votes in exchange for food and other humanitarian supplies being hoarded by the government. When asked why he was attending a Maduro rally, Julio Romero, a resident of Caracas, said “I came here because I thought they would give me food”, a shocking admission from a man clearly fed up with the crisis gripping his country. Gabriela Vegas, the woman who was quoted talking about how she was forced to sleep outside of government-owned supermarkets, called the ration boxes she got during elections “exquisite boxes” because they were considerably more full than the ones during the electoral offseason, perhaps an acknowledgement from a embattled president that the only way to have easy access to regular food is for the poor to continue their unfettered support for the now-unpopular leader.
The culmination of the political battles over food came in early March, with Maduro’s refusal to accept humanitarian aid waiting on the Colombian border. Time and time again, Maduro has refused to acknowledge the worsening humanitarian crisis in the country, claiming it to be a hoax projected by Western imperialists to destabilize his regime. His opposition to Western aid, specifically that originating from the Trump administration, was fortified by the fact Maduro’s biggest political rival, leader of the legislature and self-declared interim president, Juan Guaidó, promised relief for his people by bringing USAID aid across the border and handing it out to the waiting crowds.
A seemingly innocent concept, the ability to feed the people, is of great political significance in a country desperate for supplies. Maduro, well aware of the actual conditions in his country, is ardent in his refusal to allow the opposition to supply the poor with much-needed supplies as this would destroy his narrative of a benevolent leader who brings the riches of the nation to the common man. And while this narrative may have been destroyed long ago by the hunger felt everyday by the millions of starving Venezuelans all over the country, the government’s authoritarian hold on funds and humanitarian supplies in the downtrodden country is perhaps one of the only things maintaining their weak stranglehold on political control in a country desperately calling out for change.