ANALYSIS: Behind the Food Lines in Venezuela
In our latest article on the alleged hunger in Venezuela, teleSUR's Iain Bruce looks at some of the underlying causes of the shortages the country is suffering. READ MORE.
A Food Line Outside a Caracas Supermarket
This is the face of what much international "common sense" calls Venezuela's “economic mismanagement.” Most Chavistas, or supporters of the Bolivarian revolution, call it “economic war,” and they blame it on the revolution's international enemies and the local right. So how should we understand what is going on here, and its impact on the quantity and quality of what people can eat?
The first thing to make absolutely clear is that most Venezuelans are now facing very serious difficulties managing their everyday needs. The problems are varied, but they really come down to two. Firstly, it is very hard to find many basic foodstuffs and other everyday items. Secondly, most people find it very hard to pay for them.
To illustrate this, and give some context, here are a couple of anecdotes. The video above was filmed outside the Central Madeirense, one of Venezuela's largest supermarket chains. For over a year I did most of my shopping here. There were shortages and queues then too. For several weeks you couldn't find milk, or Venezuela's favorite flour mix, harina pan, or oil. The government had already begun to accuse the private sector of hoarding and speculating. Then one or other item would appear and that day long lines would form.
Several things seem to have changed since then. The lines are more constant. And the mood is more tense. Three years ago it was clear that some people were lining up to buy many more bottles of oil than they needed. Sometimes the whole family turned up, each buying as many as they could carry. This has now turned into the elaborate industry of bachaqueo, where people buy basic products at very low, controlled prices, then resell them at very many times that price. Queuing has become their profession. But the bigger players seem to have direct access to the storeroom at the back. Most people here are convinced that this business is run by agreement between three sectors: the bachaqueros, or resellers themselves, the supermarket managers who deliberately divert produce to them, and members of the police or armed forces who are on hand to make sure it all goes smoothly. My own experience seems to confirm that.
A similar system appears to operate in the state sector. In February, some fifty senior and middle managers of the Bicentenario supermarket chain and other state food outlets were arrested for diverting and reselling stock.
The other thing that has changed is the disparity in prices. Since I came back to Venezuela five weeks ago, I haven't been able to find coffee or milk at all. Most cafés seem to have a regular supply, but in the shops there is none. I also could not find vegetable oil. For the first couple of weeks I managed to borrow some cooking oil from a friend. Then, in desperation, I went to a well-stocked delicatessen in upscale eastern Caracas and bought a half-liter can of virgin olive oil. There was plenty of that. It cost me nearly 5 thousand bolivars – roughly a fifth of my monthly wage in bolivars.
These changes are certainly irritating for a coffee and cooking addict like me. But in my case at least, they are hardly life-threatening.
Are Venezuelans Eating Less?
Opinion polls have appeared in various local and international media that suggest Venezuelans are increasingly distressed by their declining diet. Ninety percent say they buy less food, according to Datos. Just over 30 percent say they eat less than three meals a day, according to Venebarometro. Fifteen percent think their diet is deficient, according to Encovi. Opinion polls have never been very reliable in Venezuela. They are highly politicized, and these three pollsters are all aligned with the opposition. Still, direct observation and simple logic would suggest that Venezuelans have reduced and changed their diet as a result of the current difficulties. But does that mean they are suffering from hunger?
This is what people in Caracas have to say:
First we have to know what our starting point is. Venezuela was never one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Since 2003, the Bolivarian revolution's achievements in reducing the poverty and extreme poverty that did exist have been impressive, and praised by the United Nations.
One reason has been the implementation of a wide range of social programs. But another has been the significant increase in consumption. Many more people have been buying and eating a lot more.
As far as food goes, there are two ways of looking at this. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization or FAO gauges food security in terms of the amount of food available, measured in kilo-calories per person per day. This is usually calculated over a complete year, based on the total quantity of foodstuffs produced and imported. The FAO says a country enjoys food security when food availability stands at 2,720 kilo-calories per person per day, or more.
The numbers supplied by the government's own Institute of Nutrition, and validated by the FAO, show a rising trend, with some ups and downs, from 1999, when availability stood at 2,200, to 2011, when it reached a peak of 3,500.
Since 2011, there has been a decline to 3,000 in the most recent figures, for 2015. By this measure, Venezuela remains well above the FAO's minimum food security level.
The second approach looks at food actually consumed, again in kilo-calories per person per day. This is the measure used by the World Health Organization, which sets 2,300 as its safe level of consumption, with a margin of ten percent either way. In other words, 2,070 kilo-calories per person per day is the minimum threshold for average consumption recommended by the WHO. If you go to many health sites they will tell you that you need much less, maybe 1,400 for a woman or 1,750 for a man, of average stature.
According to the National Institute of Nutrition, in Venezuela this measure has varied less. It rose somewhat to a peak of about 2,400 in 2011, and has fallen back to 2,200 in 2015. Again, this is still above the WHO's minimum level of 2,070.
So the answer to our question is clear. No, there is not hunger in Venezuela, as defined by international standards. On a world scale, after being one of the best performers during the first decade of this century, Venezuela has slipped a bit, but is still quite high up the scale. However, there are some questions that remain answered.
What About the Quality?
One has to do with the quality of what Venezuelans are eating. One recent article on the BBC's Spanish language site quoted a Venezuelan nutritionist, clearly hostile to the government, arguing that you can't measure hunger just in terms of numbers of calories. It's a point many would agree with. The article used this argument to slide from the polls showing people thought they were eating less to the observation that many Venezuelans eat junk, which is damaging their health, as if the latter were a consequence of the former. This is much more questionable.
There seems to be no serious study of variations in the content of the Venezuelan diet, so the evidence is circumstantial. Obesity is one example. The WHO says almost 31 percent of Venezuelan adults are overweight. That's the highest figure in South America, almost twice the regional average, and very similar to the proportion in the United States. But it is not a new problem. It has figured in studies going back many years. One study in 2010 put Venezuela sixth in the world. This has been attributed to both eating too much, and to eating badly. The problem affects both the well-off and poorer sections of society. Excesses of carbohydrates, fried food and highly processed, industrialized foods, alongside a lack of vegetables and other fresh food, all seem to be factors. Arguably, one hundred years depending on oil, and the neglect of local agriculture and the influence of North American consumer habits that came with it, left Venezuela with one of the worst diets in Latin America.
Has that changed with the current shortages? Some junk foods remain a comparatively cheap option for many. On the other hand, activists involved in urban agriculture and other alternative food initiatives argue strongly that Venezuelans are being forced to eat more healthily. They say there is less overeating, and more home-grown and home-processed produce, with more fiber and more vitamins. The evidence is not conclusive in either direction.
What Is Happening Now?
The official figures only go as far as 2015, taking the year as a whole. So we don't yet have a clear measure of how consumption or food security evolved in the course of last year, nor of what has happened in 2016. The evidence from Aida Romero's soup kitchen, in the Sarria neighborhood of Caracas, could be an indication, but no more.
These “Food Houses," as they are called, are one of several initiatives taken during the government of Hugo Chavez to reduce extreme poverty among the most vulnerable sectors of society. The Ministry of Food delivers the ingredients, and Aida prepares a meal for each person that needs it three times a week. When they started in 2004, Aida says, they had at least 300 regular clients. The number began to fall off, and reached a low point of 55 to 60 in 2011. Since about 2013, there has been a slow but steady rise, to around 90 people in 2014, about 110 in 2015, and between 120 and 130 now.
This is just one soup kitchen in one neighborhood – not a representative sample. But you might expect that the number of people in extreme need of help to feed themselves, could track the overall levels of food stress in the population. And up until 2015 there does seem to be a correlation between the official food security figures and the number of Aida's clients. The situation is still far better than it was before the social programs and policies of the Bolivarian period began. But it may now be close to the threshold of concern.
None of this makes the difficulties and stress caused by shortages and inflation any less. But it does help to put them into perspective. In a future article we'll look more at how these shortages come about, and the mechanisms and interests behind them.