America

Why Venezuelans worry more about food than crime

 

 

Marta doesn’t need to go shopping today, because her fridge is filled with all the products her family requires.

But when she walks down through the jagged stairs of the Petare slum in Caracas, she meticulously scans the different supermarkets and pharmacies where she may be able to buy one of the price-controlled products that are so scarce in Venezuela these days.

Finding basic products has become a reason for Marta to get out of bed in the morning. “It’s become like an obsession,” she says.

In 2003, then-President Hugo Chavez introduced price controls for some 40 food and hygiene products to guarantee the poor had access to staple goods.

But lately, in the midst of a cash crisis, price controls seem to have become a headache.

For the first time in years, shortages and inflation have replaced security as the biggest worry for Venezuelans, according to a recent poll by Caracas-based Datanalisis.

It is a surprising statistic for one of the most violent countries on earth.

But necessity is not the reason why Marta shops – it’s opportunity.

“The other day I bought olive oil without knowing what it works for because people were buying it like crazy as it was supposed to be cheap,” she says.

Smugglers and hoarders

After the global drop in the price of oil, Venezuela’s biggest source of revenue, shortages in the South American country went from bad to worse.

Datanalisis says every week, on average, Venezuelans go to four different supermarkets and spend around five hours looking for goods.

President Nicolas Maduro says shortages are caused by US-backed, far-right groups who smuggle and hoard products in an economic war to destabilise his socialist government.

“Venezuela currently has the necessary goods to feed the people, but there is a problem with distribution,” says Eduardo Saman, a former commerce minister in the government of the late Hugo Chavez.

“And distribution is in the hands of companies who operate as a cartel and seek to affect the government,” he tells the BBC.

Yet government critics don’t believe that this sort of conspiracy is the source of scarcity.

“When you impose prices that are below the value set by supply and demand, you will have an oversubscription and a drop in supply, here or anywhere in the world,” says Angel Alayon, an economist who has written several papers on scarcity for the ideas website Prodavinci.

“I don’t doubt there is hoarding and smuggling, but these are consequences of scarcity, not causes,” he tells the BBC.

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