Sun, Apr 14, 2013 - Page 9 News List

In Venezuela election, food
is a major voting issue

With much of the nation’s food now imported, food prices and the revitalization of local agriculture have become a key battleground ahead of today’s vote

By James Anderson  /  AP, CARACAS, Venezuela

Venezuelan homes will “have refrigerators filled with good food, food made in Venezuela, food made by our farm workers and not farm workers from other countries,” Capriles vowed during a campaign rally last Sunday.

Chavez’s proposed plan for his unfinished six-year term had similar proposals, including fixing roads, but the government plans to keep up expropriations.

Jose Agustin Campos, president of the pro-government National Confederation of Farmers and Ranchers, defended Chavez’s policies at a news conference on Tuesday. He said Chavez had reduced interest rates for agricultural loans to help farmers invest and imposed a minimum wage for rural workers on par with urban laborers to encourage the workforce to stay on the farms.

Campos also said dependence on food imports is an old problem that preceded Chavez.

Attempts at agrarian reform in the 1960s sputtered when the government redistributed land but failed to provide the new farmers with the expertise and capital needed to succeed, leading them to produce less. By the time Chavez was elected in 1999, a census had found that 90 percent of farmland given to the poor had returned to large landholders.

Chavez had promised not to make the same mistakes, but Venezuela’s poor have continued to migrate to the cities; deprived of expertise, many expropriated farms produce less and less. Private food makers, large and small, often sell at a loss because of hundreds of price controls that Chavez imposed in a losing fight against runaway inflation. The government controls the foreign currency they need to buy foreign-made pesticides, fertilizers, animal food and machinery.

Maduro has insisted he will continue Chavez’s legacy of state-sponsored supply for the poor. And on Thursday last week, he injected a new element into the campaign, accusing Venezuela’s biggest private food producer, Alimentos Polar, of sabotaging the domestic food market, though he did not elaborate on how.

“Keep up your sabotage of the people’s food,” Maduro bellowed at a rally in the northern state of Carabobo. “That’s OK. Everything in life has its end.”

Polar employs about 48,000 people directly and indirectly in its foods division and accounts for roughly 10 percent of domestic food production, including grains, sauces, cheese, canned foods, jam, animal food and other products.

It issued an unusually strong statement on Friday last week that called Maduro’s remarks “threatening” and insisted it is producing at maximum capacity despite a web of government restrictions.

Polar said the government owes it US$140 million for imports. It said the government decides where its products are shipped, “without taking into account consumer demand.”

It said the government has disrupted cornmeal inventories throughout Venezuela by demanding that Polar send most of it to Caracas.

Polar added that every food delivery it makes must be approved beforehand by the government. And it noted that official prices for many of its products have not changed in two years despite a recent devaluation of the bolivar currency and estimated inflation of 23 percent. The company said it is losing money on sales of some products, including pre-cooked corn meal, rice, corn oil and pasta.

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