Venezuela falls further into crisis as food shortages worsen

Sharp drop in oil prices has left government without the means to pay for food imports

The Organisation of American States (OAS) was locked in an emergency meeting on Thursday on how to respond to the deepening crisis in Venezuela which has provoked food riots among its increasingly desperate population.

Despite having the world’s largest oil reserves the South American nation is experiencing severe shortages as the sharp drop in the price of oil has left the government without the hard currency necessary to pay for food imports.

With spiralling inflation meaning many people cannot afford to turn to the black market, poor neighbourhoods in the capital Caracas and other cities have experienced long queues outside government-owned supermarkets as people spend hours waiting in the hope they can buy scarce basic foodstuffs and medicines.

A recent survey by the Simón Bolívar University showed 87 per cent of Venezuelans said they did not have enough money to buy food. The growing shortages are provoking panic among segments of the population. According to local monitoring organisation the Observatory of Violence there are now at least 10 incidents of food riots and looting of stores around the country each day. Police have already shot dead several looters and have been forced to place some areas under curfew.


Food riots are just one aspect of a gathering breakdown in public security the government seems powerless to reverse. Recent weeks have seen an increase of carjackings, kidnappings and murders which are striking fear into a population long accustomed to living with one of the world’s highest homicide rates.

With oil accounting for 95 per cent of export revenue the two-year slump in its price has exposed the mismanagement of the country’s economy by the chavista government of President Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chávez after his death in 2013.

Misguided populist intervention in the economy, allied to rampant corruption, has crippled the country’s domestic food production leaving Venezuela dependent on food imports it can no longer afford. Even as the crisis intensifies corrupt officials have been accused of conspiring with local businesses to smuggle government-subsidised food into neighbouring countries where they can sell it for a huge profit.

Mr Maduro has blamed the crisis on economic sabotage by the local business community in collusion with outsiders. On Wednesday his administration claimed the country had seen a drop in extreme poverty to 9.3 per cent for 2015.

Referendum recall

The president now faces an effort led by the opposition to hold a recall referendum on his mandate, intensifying a political crisis that entered a dangerous new phase after the opposition won control of the national assembly in midterm elections last year.

Amid signs the government is seeking to stall the recall effort, Archbishop of Caracas Cardinal Jorge Urosa said holding the plebiscite was crucial for resolving the crisis. But Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and one of the government's strongmen, told the cardinal "to shut up" and that he should "convert himself into a pastor of Christ" in a reflection of the hardening rhetoric on both sides.

Thursday’s OAS meeting was called to explore how Venezuela’s neighbours could help promote political dialogue in the country while at the same time discuss humanitarian assistance for its population.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America