Venezuelans cross border in hunt for food

Posted on July 11, 2016

Venezuelans shop for groceries at a supermarket in Cucuta, Norte de Santander department, Colombia on July 10, 2016. Thousands of Venezuelans crossed Sunday the border with Colombia to take advantage of its 12-hour opening after it was closed by the Venezuelan government 11 months ago. Venezuelans rushed to Cucuta to buy food and medicines which are scarce in their country. / AFP / Schneyder Mendoza (Photo credit should read SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

Omar Torres felt a rush of emotion as he crossed the Simón Bolívar bridge between Colombia and Venezuela with his wife and daughters. “We almost cried when we entered Colombia, and we realised we were going to be able to, at last, buy the food we lack in Venezuela,” he said.

The Torres family were among an estimated 35,000 Venezuelans who poured into Colombia on Sunday after the embattled socialist government of Nicolás Maduro allowed crossings for 14 hours to let people buy basic goods amid chronic shortages in Venezuela. Mr Maduro closed the border last August, allegedly to crack down on crime and contraband.

    Observers see this as a foretaste of what a humanitarian crisis would look like if nothing is done to end Venezuela’s downward spiral. Senior Colombian officials say “there is already a plan” to welcome refugees if there is a social implosion next door, where an estimated 3m Colombians live.

    Sunday’s exodus followed an incident last week in which at least 500 Venezuelan women — dressed in white as a “symbol of peace” in homage to the Cuban dissident movement — defied the border closure and pushed past Venezuelan guards to find basic goods for their families.

    José Vielma Mora, the socialist governor of the Venezuelan frontier state of Táchira, said that action was orchestrated by the opposition to generate “chaos”. 

    But in the Colombian city of Cúcuta on Sunday, Venezuelans from all over the country crowded supermarkets and calmly gathered as much rice, cooking oil and maize flour as they could carry. These items are either in short supply at home or sold at exorbitant prices by buy-and-flip hustlers who resell subsidised products.

    “There are a number of indications that the food supply situation is becoming critical and that a large part of the population is simply not finding enough to eat,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. 

    “It is also apparent that the security forces are finding it increasingly difficult to deal with unrest arising from the lack of food and other basic goods. Although Venezuela is not yet facing famine, there are some indicators that are typical of countries entering a period of food crisis.” 

    There are a number of indications that the food supply situation is becoming critical and that a large part of the population is simply not finding enough to eat

    – Phil Gunson, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group

    These include increasing incidence of malnutrition. Looting and food riots are also becoming commonplace. Socialist officials usually blame the problems on an “economic war” launched by rightwing foes and business leaders with the backing of Washington. Venezuela’s foreign minister denied before the Organization of American States last month that her country was suffering from a humanitarian crisis. 

    “I saw people dying cause of lack of medicines, children with malnutrition, and this beast of a woman dared saying there is no humanitarian crisis there,” said Isley Márquez, a nurse from the nearby Venezuelan city of San Cristóbal, as she clutched plastic bags of goods outside a supermarket in central Cúcuta. 

    More than 80 per cent of staple goods are missing from supermarket shelves in Caracas, according to Datanálisis, a pollster. Food production has plummeted, say industry insiders, because of price and currency controls and the impact of nationalisations in the food industry. The government owes $30bn to private suppliers and importers, according to Ecoanalítica, a Caracas-based consultancy. 

    Scarcities are set to worsen as consumer goods producers struggle to keep operations afloat in the import-dependent country. Companies operating in Venezuela have been unable to purchase raw materials or obtain hard currency, while producers, as well as impoverished consumers, have been hit by high inflation projected by the IMF to top 481 per cent this year and a jaw-dropping 1,643 per cent in 2017.

    In Venezuela the stage is set for a chaotic exit 

    Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro (C) talks during a ministerial council of Petrocaribe in Caracas

    The drama of Maduro’s presidency is set to end in tragedy, writes Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez 

    On Saturday, Kimberly-Clark became the latest company to close its operations in the country. The US-based producer of toilet paper, nappies and tissues said it was “indefinitely suspending all business operations in Venezuela, effective immediately, due to the continued deterioration of economic and business conditions”. 

    Empresas Polar, the country’s top food producer, has stopped producing beer until it can get access to foreign currency to procure necessary materials. Sources say the company is running dangerously short on rice and maize flour, the base ingredient for Venezuela’s staple, the arepa.

    As Venezuelans crossed the Simón Bolívar international bridge back to their homes on Sunday, a green and white sign bade them farewell: “Goodbye, friend. Come back soon.” For the time being, Venezuelans like Mr Torres have little choice.

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