Hungry loot to get food in Venezuela
PUERTO CABELLO, Venezuela — Sporadic looting, food riots and protests driven by the hungry poor have surged in Venezuela, a country that’s no stranger to unrest, but the uprisings playing out recently have a different face than the mostly middle-class protesters who took to the streets for months last year in political demonstrations trying to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
“These protests are coming from people of the lower classes who simply cannot get enough to eat,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, who has spent decades researching Venezuela. “They want relief, not necessarily to force Maduro from power.”
Venezuela holds the world’s largest oil reserves and was once among Latin America’s wealthiest nations. But after nearly two decades of socialist rule and mismanagement of the state-run oil company, it is being battered by the worst economic crisis in its history.
The surge in violent food protests began in poor neighborhoods across the country around Christmas, when Maduro had promised that holiday hams were arriving in government food baskets distributed to his supporters.
But many hams didn’t arrive, sparking protests with small groups burning garbage in the street and looting. Opposition pundits called it the “pork revolution.” Trying to restore calm, Maduro ordered hundreds of supermarkets to slash prices to the previous month’s level — a tall order in a country where prices have been doubling every few weeks.
Repeating a common refrain, the government blamed the absence of hams on sabotage by its foreign critics, in this case Portugal, which it said was taking orders from the U.S.
“Why didn’t the ham arrive? Because of the blockade against us,” socialist party leader Diosdado Cabello said on state TV, blaming the “gringos” but providing no evidence.
The unrest has cooled some, but many Venezuelans fear it will be a temporary lull as the economy spins further out of control. The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation will reach five digits this year, while the economy, in its fifth-straight year of recession, will shrink 15 percent.
Barely solvent businesses say they are reluctant to import more goods, fearing another government-ordered fire sale. As the currency crashes on the flourishing black market, the monthly minimum wage is now worth the equivalent of just $3.
Financial sanctions imposed in August by President Donald Trump’s administration are only adding to Venezuelans’ misery, choking off the country’s access to credit and scaring away oil companies.
Meanwhile, hunger is widespread.
Recently a dozen men stormed a street-side deli in the western city of Barquisimeto. Surveillance cameras captured them leaping over the glass counter as customers and employees scrambled out of the way. They wiped the store clean in minutes.
Cattle ranchers said at least two farms have been raided by people who slaughtered cows.
In the first half of January, there were at least 110 incidents of looting, more than five times than in the same period a year earlier, says the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a nongovernmental group that tracks unrest.
Information for this article was contributed by Scott Smith and Fabiola Sanchez of The Associated Press.
Venezuelans try to steal rice earlier this month from a truck arriving at the port in Puerto Cabello.