How Venezuela's Repressive Government Controls the Nation Through Hunger

In Venezuela, the state has created hunger games and these games have morphed into war -- a war of the state against citizens and a war of citizens and against citizens.
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People line up to buy groceries outside at a supermarket in La Urbina neighborhood in Caracas, on July 13, 2016. Venezuela's military has been put on the frontline of a worsening national economic crisis by taking charge of food distribution and key ports amid dire shortages and mounting unrest. / AFP / FEDERICO PARRA (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)
People line up to buy groceries outside at a supermarket in La Urbina neighborhood in Caracas, on July 13, 2016. Venezuela's military has been put on the frontline of a worsening national economic crisis by taking charge of food distribution and key ports amid dire shortages and mounting unrest. / AFP / FEDERICO PARRA (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Venezuelan government has become one of the world's cruelest teasers. It has created unspeakable hardships for the populace and, at the same time, is taking advantage of those hardships to introduce new forms of political control.

The proliferation of food lines is a perfect example of this teasing. Lines to buy groceries have become longer and more widespread. In a country with plenty of irritants, these food lines, hardly seen before 2010, have become Venezuela's most aggravating political problem today.

You would think that food lines would prompt riots. And some rioting is occurring. But we are not seeing anything like a Venezuelan Spring in which protests envelop the country and lead to governmental change. Why? Because food lines have paradoxically given the government new mechanisms for keeping protests at bay.

Maduro has Sovietized Venezuela.

Venezuela is facing a manmade food crisis. In the mid-2000s, under President Hugo Chávez, the state implemented a series of ill-conceived economic policies: price controls, arbitrary expropriations, overvalued exchange rates and overregulation of the private sector. These policies destroyed Venezuela's capacity to produce goods domestically, including food. Between 2008 and 2014, which analysts often consider boom years in Venezuela, the agricultural gross domestic product per capita shrank by an average of 4.7 percent annually.

When oil prices were high, from 2004 to 2013, the government could ignore the collapse of domestic production because it could spend petrodollars on imports. But when oil prices started declining in 2014, the government adjusted by reducing the money available for imports. This reduction affected food, fertilizer and agricultural equipment. The result is today's food crisis.

None of the Chávez-era policies that led to the food crisis have changed. If anything, Chávez's successor, Nicolás Maduro, has reinforced the model he inherited. The only change has been the introduction of a rationing system. The government launched consumption quotas, giving people permission to buy certain quantities of certain products on certain days of the week, but no more. Maduro has thus Sovietized Venezuela. And predictably, rationing has exacerbated the food lines. Today, Venezuelans spend an average of 8 hours a week shopping and standing in line.

venezuela school

Students enjoy bowls of soup at the Padre Jose Maria Velaz school in Caracas on July 12 (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)

This food crisis naturally produces undernourishment. Even middle class families are now altering not just their diets by ingesting fewer proteins and calories, but also their meal frequencies; the majority of Venezuelans eat no more than twice a day, if they are lucky.

But the consequences go beyond health and nutrition. One unexpected externality of food scarcity is an education crisis. Teachers are taking time off from school to stand in line. Families bring children with them to stand in line since they are unsure if schools are providing adult supervision. Empty shelves are producing empty classrooms.

There's no doubt that food lines are increasing the disgust people feel toward the government. In Latin America, we don't often see a steeper decline in the popularity of a government as in Venezuela since 2013. Polls reveal that even former supporters of the ruling party are intensely irritated with Maduro and blame him for their hunger. Most want a recall referendum to remove the president. Food lines are both a symbol of the government's ineptitude and also the biggest trigger of political discontent.

The consequences go beyond health and nutrition.

This discontent has led to a boom in protests. Food protests have nearly doubled from last year. Roughly five food-related protests occur in Venezuela every day, a total of 954 in the first half of 2016 -- 27 percent of all street protests in the country.

However, these protests have not translated into the sort of organized, sustained and broad-based mobilizations that produce major political upheavals and a change in government. Rather than a massive storm, Venezuela is facing isolated thundershowers: violent and powerful food riots that are disconnected and last only a short time. Why?

The answer has to do with the politics of standing in line. While lengthy lines create a reason for Venezuelans to protest, they also give the government plenty of mechanisms to control the population. Here's how it works.

venezuela medicine

A pharmacy employee arranges medicine in a drugstore in Caracas on Feb. 23. (REUTERS/Marco Bello)

When Venezuelans stand in food lines, they have to confront four types of painful uncertainties. First, they are never sure whether they will make it to the front because the lines are so long.

Second, even if you manage to enter the store, you still don't know whether you'll get what you need. Stores often run out of rationed products and the prices are too high due to rampant inflation.

Third, standing in line makes you an easy target for criminals. Venezuela is one of the most crime-infested countries in the world. Murder is rampant and robberies in broad daylight are routine. No one standing in line has assurances of safety. Robbers can easily take your belongings -- even the groceries you managed to find in the store.

And lastly, Venezuelans are uncertain if a protest will materialize while standing in line. This is bad news because a protest incites the police to act and can trap innocent bystanders in episodes of violence or even arbitrary arrests.

Empty shelves are producing empty classrooms.

These uncertainties help the government control the population and discourage people from standing in line; many rely instead on informal markets, where some products can be found at exorbitant prices.

In addition, lines and rationing give the government the chance to extend Orwellian supervision. Retailers are being required to keep tabs on who buys what and how much. The government has installed fingerprint scanners in grocery and drug stores. The government has seized supplies from food firms and threatened to take over idle factories. The police often allow certain groups of citizens (many with ties to the ruling party) to control access to the lines or even mug people standing in line.

Lines and scarcity give the government the chance to engage in new forms of favoritism. One of the most important games in Venezuela is guessing which stores will have which products. Only the government, which controls food distribution, knows this information for sure. So one of the games it has started playing is to disclose information only to those who are pro-government.

venezuela maduro

Maduro speaks to oil workers during a demonstration in Caracas on June 22. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

Another form of favoritism has been the creation of CLAPs (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción). These are government-run "committees" that distribute groceries. Bags of groceries are given mostly to loyal groups. By the end of May, more than 9,000 CLAPS were operating. A recent poll suggests that at least 9 percent of Venezuelans are taking advantage of the CLAPs. CLAPs do nothing to end Venezuela's food crisis but they do wonders for the government: they force Venezuelans to demonstrate loyalty to Maduro regime in order to qualify for the handout.

But the most important consequence of lines and rationing has been the increase in military control. Military personnel have been deployed to monitor food lines and supermarkets. They are there with the pretext of protecting citizens from crime, but what they are most successful in doing is repressing any protest that might emerge.

Venezuela's militarization has taken a turn for the worse as food lines have expanded. A decree last month made by the defense minister, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, who is in charge of everything pertaining to the production and distribution of food, put all cabinet members under the command of the military. Franz von Bergen and I called this decision a new sort of palace coup. The armed forces didn't displace the president but are restricting his autonomy to near zero. And at the beginning of August, a military general charged in the United States for drug trafficking was appointed the new interior and justice minister, deepening the extent to which the cabinet is in the hands of sinister soldiers.

The state has created hunger games.

Venezuela is producing a worse version of Charles Tilly's famous argument about the consolidation of states in pre-democratic Europe. Tilly argued that monarchical government emerged in Europe as a result of a racket: the monarch would fabricate threats against the population and then charge subjects (with taxes) for protection.

The Venezuelan government is more perverse. It creates (rather than merely fabricates) a threat against the population: the food crisis. It then blames the crisis on others -- the private sector, citizens who overconsume, smugglers -- and proceeds to charge citizens an extra premium: runaway inflation, scarcity, long lines and informal markets.

But instead of offering protection, the state redoubles threats by expanding uncertainty, state control, military surveillance and government-sanctioned criminal gangs.

In Venezuela, the state has created hunger games and these games have morphed into war games. There is a war of the state against citizens and a war of citizens and against citizens. These war games, more so than the drop in the price of oil, are the essence of Venezuela's humanitarian crisis.

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