Going hungry in Venezuela

Traveling through the country this month I saw endless queues of people trying to buy food — any food — at supermarkets and other government-run shops.

I was stopped at a roadblock in the middle of the countryside by people who said they had eaten nothing but mangoes for three days.

I saw the hopeless expression of a mother, who had been eating so little that she was no longer able to breastfeed her baby.

I met a woman affectionately known as la gorda — "the fat one" — whose protruding cheekbones indicated just how much weight she had lost in the last year.

I felt sympathy for all these people, but it was my family who really brought it home to me.

My brother told me all his trousers were now too big. My father — never one to grumble — let slip that things were "really tough." My mother, meanwhile, confessed that sometimes she only eats once a day. They all live in different parts of Venezuela, but none of them is getting enough to eat. It's a nationwide problem.

A study by three of the country's main universities indicates that 90 percent of Venezuelans are eating less than they did last year and that "extreme poverty" has jumped by 53 percent since 2014.

There are a number of causes — shortages of basic goods, bad management, a host of speculators and hoarders and a severe drop in the country's oil income.

Plus, of course, the highest inflation rate in the world.

The country's official inflation rate was 180 percent in December, the last time a figure was made public, but the IMF estimates it will be above 700 percent by the end of the year.

In an attempt to stop speculators and hoarders, the government years ago fixed the price of many basic goods, such as flour, chicken or bread. But Venezuelans can only buy the goods at these fixed prices once a week, depending on the final digit of the number on their national identity card. If it's 0 or 1, for example, then you're allowed to buy on Mondays. For 2 or 3, it's Tuesdays, and so on.

Because there is a risk of the goods running out, people often arrive at supermarkets in the early hours of the morning, or even earlier. At 6 a.m. one morning in Caracas, I met a man who had already been in the queue for three hours. It was pouring with rain, and he didn't have an umbrella.

"I'm hoping to get rice, but sometimes I've queued and then been unable to buy anything because the rice runs out before I get in," he said.

Even if they are lucky, shoppers are only allowed a restricted amount of items per day. Those who can't get enough have to wait a full week until their turn comes round again — the tills will automatically reject anyone's shopping if they arrive on the wrong day. As inflation rises, the incentive grows for people to queue to buy these goods at regulated prices and then sell them on the black market, where a pack of flour can cost 100 times more. The government has promised to crack down on the practice, but so far hasn't been able to stop it.

For years this oil-rich nation has been increasing food imports in an attempt to guarantee a supply of basic goods, but critics say that price controls and the nationalization program of the late president, Hugo Chavez, contributed to the current crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro, who was elected by a slim margin three years ago, after Chavez died, has also had to deal with a drop in oil prices that has reduced the country's foreign earnings by about two-thirds. His latest step has been to create Local Committees of Supplies and Production, better known by the Spanish acronym, CLAP. The CLAPs essentially mean that the government will stop sending imported food to supermarkets and start handing it over to local community councils.

These entities will register people in their community, assign them a day for shopping, and sell them a plastic bag filled with a number of goods such as flour, pasta and soap, at a fixed price. You cannot choose what you want to buy. You just get what you are given in the bag.

"But this will only be available once a month!" a young mother, Liliana, exclaimed at the roadblock manned by people eating nothing but mangoes.

She admitted to going to bed in tears on days when she had been unable to give her two children any dinner.

In western Venezuela, in the oil-rich province of Zulia, I visited several small towns where people didn't know what they would eat the following day.

"We've always been poor here, that's true, but we've never been hungry," said Zulay Florido, a community leader in her 50s.

"Since (President) Maduro took power we are in a very bad situation. We call it here 'the Maduro diet.'

"When Chavez was in power this didn't happen."

In Zulia, food was already in the hands of the community councils rather than the supermarkets.

The ultimate aim of the CLAPs is to create self-sustaining communities, where people grow their own food.

I was taken to one of these places by Alejandro Armao, a member of a colectivo – a group of hardcore government supporters, often armed, who are sometimes accused of acts of violence against opposition activists.

Armao introduced me to several colectivo members in a slum called Catia. They appeared to be armed, and were carrying walkie-talkies.

After threatening to kick me out of the area, they agreed in the end to show me what the CLAP was aiming to achieve. I was taken to see a barren field — "which we aim to have ready for crops in eight months" — and several chili plants waiting to be planted.

It was, to say the least, disheartening.

I thought of my mother, and wondered whether this could be the solution for people like her, struggling to eat properly three times a day.

My mother, who's a staunch government supporter, truly believes it is.

"It will take time but it will happen," she says.

But I cannot help wondering whether other Venezuelans will be as patient.

This story was originally published by our partners at the BBC.

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