With delivery trucks under constant attack, food in Venezuela is now transported under armed guard. Soldiers stand watch over bakeries. The police fire rubber bullets at desperate mobs storming grocery stores, pharmacies and butcher shops. A four-year-old girl was shot to death as street gangs fought over food.
Venezuela is convulsing from hunger.
Hundreds of people in the city of Cumana, home to one of the region’s independence heroes, marched on a supermarket in recent days, screaming for food. They forced open a large metal gate and poured inside. They snatched water, flour, cornmeal, salt, sugar, potatoes, anything they could find, leaving behind only broken freezers and overturned shelves.
And they showed that even in a country with the largest oil reserves in the world, it is possible for people to riot because there is not enough food.
In the past two weeks alone, more than 50 food riots, protests and mass looting have erupted around the nation.
Scores of businesses have been stripped bare or destroyed. At least five people have been killed.
This is precisely the Venezuela its leaders vowed to prevent.
In one of the nation’s worst moments, riots spread from Caracas, the capital, in 1989, leaving hundreds dead at the hands of security forces. Known as the “Caracazo,” or the “Caracas clash,” they were set off by low oil prices, cuts in subsidies and a population that was suddenly impoverished.
The event seared the memory of a future president, Hugo Chavez, who said the nation’s inability to provide for its people, and the state’s repression of the uprising, were the reasons Venezuela needed a socialist revolution.
Now his successors find themselves in a similar bind — or maybe even worse.
The nation is anxiously searching for ways to feed itself. The economic collapse of recent years has left it unable to produce enough food on its own or import what it needs from abroad. Cities have been militarized under an emergency decree from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the man Chavez picked to carry on with his revolution before he died three years ago.
“If there is no food, there will be more riots,” said Raibelis Henriquez, 19, who waited all day for bread in Cumana, where at least 22 businesses were attacked in a single day last week.
However, while the riots and clashes punctuate the country with alarm, it is the hunger that remains the constant source of unease.
A staggering 87 percent of Venezuelans say they do not have money to buy enough food, the most recent assessment of living standards by Simon Bolivar University found.
About 72 percent of monthly wages are being spent just to buy food, according to the Center for Documentation and Social Analysis, a research group associated with the Venezuelan Teachers Federation. In April, it found that a family would need the equivalent of 16 minimum-wage salaries to properly feed itself.
Ask people in this city when they last ate a meal, and many will respond that it was not today.
Economists say years of economic mismanagement — worsened by low prices for oil, the nation’s main source of revenue — have shattered the food supply. Sugar fields in the country’s agricultural center lie fallow for lack of fertilizers. Unused machinery rots in shuttered state-owned factories. Staples like corn and rice, once exported, now must be imported and arrive in amounts that do not meet the need.
In response, Maduro has tightened his grip over the food supply. Using emergency decrees he signed this year, the president put most food distribution in the hands of a group of citizen brigades loyal to leftists, a measure critics say is reminiscent of food rationing in Cuba.
“They’re saying, in other words, you get food if you’re my friend, if you’re my sympathizer,” said Roberto Briceno-Leon, director of human rights group Venezuelan Violence Observatory.
It was all a new reality for Gabriel Marquez, 24, who grew up in the boom years when Venezuela was rich and empty shelves were unimaginable.
He stood in front of the destroyed supermarket where the mob had arrived at Cumana, an endless expanse of smashed bottles, boxes and scattered shelves. A few people, including a policeman, were searching the wreckage for leftovers to take.
“During Carnival, we used to throw eggs at each other just to have some fun,” he said. “Now an egg is like gold.”
Down the coastal road in a small fishing town called Boca de Uchire, hundreds gathered on a bridge this month to protest because the food deliveries were not arriving. Residents demanded to meet the mayor, but when he did not come they sacked a Chinese bodega.
Residents hacked open the door with pickaxes and pillaged the shop, venting their anger at a global power that has lent billions of US dollars to prop up Venezuela in recent years.
“The Chinese won’t sell to us,” said a taxi driver who watched the crowd haul away all that was inside. “So we burn their stores instead.”
It has not always been clear what provokes the riots. Is it hunger alone? Or is it some larger anger that has built up in a country that has crumbled?
Ines Rodriguez was not sure. She remembered calling out to the crowd of people who had come to sack her restaurant on Tuesday night, offering them all the chicken and rice the restaurant had if they would only leave the furniture and cash register behind. They balked at the offer and simply pushed her aside, Rodriguez said.
“It is the meeting of hunger and crime now,” she said.
As she spoke, three trucks with armed patrols drove by, each emblazoned with photos of Chavez and Maduro.
The trucks were carrying food.
“Finally they come here,” Rodriguez said. “And look what it took to get them. It took this riot to get us something to eat.”
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