Hun­gry loot to get food in Venezuela

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - SCOTT SMITH AND FABI­OLA SANCHEZ

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.

AP/FER­NANDO LLANO

Venezue­lans try to steal rice ear­lier this month from a truck ar­riv­ing at the port in Puerto Ca­bello.

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