How food shortages are dividing Venezuela

People queuing outside a Mercal supermarket

Some 30 people are queuing outside a state-run supermarket in the 23 de Enero neighbourhood in Caracas.

A woman walks out with a bag in her hands. "There is milk!" she says enthusiastically, much to the delight of the other customers.

Milk is one of the products that are not easily available in Venezuela. Others include toilet paper, sugar, cooking oil and the cornflour used to make arepas, Venezuela's national dish.

According to data from Venezuela's Central Bank, the scarcity index rose to 21% last month, the highest since the bank started tracking the measure in 2009.

This means that out of 100 goods, 21 are not available.

Patience

When certain staples such as milk are available, queues inside and outside supermarkets become longer.

Start Quote

Before, we couldn't eat a complete diet, now we can afford everything”

End Quote Raul Espana Retiree

But shoppers at the government-run Mercal supermarket do not seem to mind. "There are always queues, but we need to be patient," says Raul Espana, a 63-year-old retiree.

Saving on food is important for Mr Espana, who with his wife lives off a government pension of approximately 2500 bolivares ($375, £246) a month.

"Before, we couldn't eat a complete diet," he says. "Now we can afford everything."

Mercal is part of a government-run system that provides subsidised food and basic goods through a chain of stores around the country.

A kilogram of pasta, for example, costs 2 bolivares ($0.30 according to the official exchange rate) here, 10 times less than at private supermarkets.

The late President, Hugo Chavez, created this government-subsidised system in 2003, following an opposition-led oil strike that almost paralysed the country.

Inflation

Mercal stores are mainly located in impoverished areas, such as the 23 de Enero neighbourhood in Caracas.

Many say Mercal is one of a raft of programmes created by Mr Chavez that helped them lead more dignified lives.

Start Quote

I have to go to five or six supermarkets to buy everything I need”

End Quote Gerardo Araujo Accountant

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) includes Venezuela among the countries that have been most successful in their efforts to eradicate hunger.

When Mr Chavez came to power in 1999, more than 15% of the population was undernourished. Now that figure has decreased to less than 5%, according to FAO figures.

But while many praise the government programmes for giving them a chance to eat every day, opposition supporters say the economy is a disaster.

In the upper-middle-class district of Altamira, people complain on their way out of a supermarket.

"Right now I have to go to five or six supermarkets to buy everything I need," says Gerardo Araujo, an accountant.

But the availability of goods is not the only issue that worries Mr Araujo. Inflation reached 29.4% in April while food prices rose 6.4%, according to the latest government data.

Shoppers at a Mercal supermarket Pictures of late President Hugo Chavez are prominently displayed in a Mercal supermarket in Caracas

"Every day my salary is worth less and I lose my capacity to buy goods," he says, blaming the government's inefficiency for the current economic situation.

Economists close to the opposition point to the government's tight economic controls on foreign currency, inadequate domestic production of food and dependence on imports to explain the rise in prices.

The government disagrees.

After winning by a narrow majority in April's presidential elections, President Nicolas Maduro warned Venezuelans that food shortages were the result of a conspiracy campaign by the opposition and rich sectors of society.

'Opposition sabotage'

In May, he went on his first official foreign trip, taking in Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.

Price list at a Mercal supermarket Prices at the government-subsidised Mercal supermarkets are lower than in private stores

"A key part of my tour is to guarantee the strengthening of our food reserves, our reserves of basic products for the next three months," he said before embarking on his trip.

In Argentina, Mr Maduro signed 12 bilateral agreements - exchanging oil, of which Venezuela has large reserves, for food such as meat and wheat.

Food scarcity in Venezuela is not new. During Mr Chavez's 14 years in power, availability was always fluctuating.

But most analysts recognise that food became a voting issue in April, and many who had previously voted for Mr Chavez turned to the opposition.

'Scrounging around'

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles says a new model is needed to save Venezuela from economic collapse.

"We have enough land to turn Venezuela into a food-producing country. Oil needs to be a lever for development. We have 30 million hectares of fertile land. We are importing fish ... and look at how large our coast is!" Mr Capriles told BBC Mundo before narrowly losing the election to Mr Maduro.

Even in the 23 de Enero neighbourhood, a bastion of government support, confidence in the government has started to wane.

"You need to scrounge around to find what you need," says Vicenta Martinez, an 81-year-old retiree, while queuing outside the Mercal supermarket.

"There is nothing here, everything is imported," she says. "I come from the countryside, and we used to produce food, but now we don't anymore."

Mr Chavez had promised to turn Venezuela into a self-sufficient country that could even export food. To do so, he expropriated land and nationalised companies. Fourteen years on, the country still imports 70% of its food.

"The government is responsible for this," says Ms Martinez, lowering her voice, worried that other people may overhear her.

"I used to vote for Chavez, but he fooled us," she says. "This time I voted for Capriles."

In Venezuela, groceries have become a political issue.

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