Venezuela is currently mired in arguably the most severe economic, social, and political crises in the country’s recent history. The food crisis in particular, has had the country on knife’s edge for nearly 3 years now.
Ever since global oil prices took a downward turn in mid-2014, Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy has sunk into an impressive state of decline. The economic crisis, now exacerbated by the food crisis, has incited unprecedented levels of disillusion, despair, and ire among the masses. It has also exposed the government of Nicolás Maduro’s increasing proclivity to turn a blind eye to democratic governance and rule of law.
What began as an occasional shortage of certain food products such as chicken, rice, and oil in supermarkets in the capital city of Caracas and elsewhere soon devolved into a chronic shortage, and now this summer, into a full-blown food crisis. In August 2016, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. He attributed the crisis mainly to the country’s political instability. Humanitarian crisis is, from all angles, an apt characterization of the current situation in Venezuela, given that in addition to the perpetual food shortage, there is also a dearth of essential medicines and very limited electricity and water supply.
The present landscape in Venezuela, especially in Caracas, has been marked, for months now, by standstill supermarkets, daily looting, protests in the streets, and intense clashes between civilians and the police and national guard. In June 2016, the government purchased approximately 115,000 tons of imported foodstuffs. President Maduro announced that the food would only be distributed by Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP), part of a new food distribution system created by the government to handle the food crisis. Opposition parties to the government argued that the new food distribution system would exacerbate the crisis by giving the government monopoly over the country’s main food supply.
While the food crisis casts a longer shadow over Venezuela with the passing of each day, the country’s deepening economic recession, namely the precipitous depreciation of the bolivar currency and the government’s mounting debt payments, threaten to accelerate Venezuela’s decadence. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Venezuela has been, and will most likely remain, the world’s worst performing economy this year. The bleak prediction includes a 10% shrinking of the economy and inflation topping 700%. Far beyond ankle-deep in these severely turbulent waters, the government has been prioritizing payment of its tower of debt – an immense challenge in and of itself as the value of the bolivar continuously slides – over the acquisition of basic food items. Even as images of ransacked supermarkets, famished families, and round-the-clock protests continue to sear the conscience of Venezuela and the global community, the government recently, to the surprise and chagrin of many, rejected humanitarian assistance offered by both Amnesty International and the United Nations.
Among the government’s more significant initiatives to alleviate the food crisis was the reopening of the Venezuela-Colombia border this summer. Maduro’s government indefinitely closed the border in 2015 to prevent the smuggling of subsidized goods by criminal gangs and paramilitary groups into Venezuela. As a result of the decision to reopen the border, albeit only during specific hours of the day, up to 44,000 Venezuelans are estimated to have crossed into Colombia, under stringent security, to purchase basic food items, medicine, and toiletries. It is unknown for how long the border will remain open, as no official announcement has yet been made by either the Venezuelan or Colombian government. A different initiative by the government has generated substantially greater controversy than the reopening of the Venezuela-Colombia border. At the end of July 2016, President Maduro issued a decree that requires all employers in the public and private sector to allow the government to reassign their employees to work on state-owned farms for a period of up to 60 days. The decree is not yet in force. It remains to be seen whether the legislation will become effective, as it has been met with forcible opposition throughout the country and widely condemned by international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. According to the government, the objective of the decree is to bolster the slumping agricultural sector and increase overall food production.
As the year progresses, many eyes will be focused on Venezuela. It would not be a welcome time for the South American region to deal with the effects of another major country’s economic slump and political devolution (most recently, and ongoing, the case of Brazil).