Shortages in Venezuela have now hit an essential part of traditional Christmas and New Year’s meals, leaving frustrated citizens with a new holiday chorus: “We want our ham!”
Ham has been in short supply, sending people fed up with shortages of this and other essentials into the streets to protest.
“We didn’t have it for Christmas and it won’t be here for the New Year,” Miriam Brito said during a protest in Caracas.
Similar small demonstrations have multiplied throughout Venezuela, but the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro — whose country was once one of the wealthiest in Latin America — has promised that ham would be among foods sold at subsidized prices.
Brito said she has gone four months without receiving food subsidies.
“They lied to us with ham,” said Brito, 40, the mother of a seven-year-old daughter.
Falling oil prices, political unrest, and corruption have decimated the economy under Maduro, leading to chronic food and medicine shortages, and inflation that the IMF forecasts will exceed 2,300 percent next year.
Last month, creditors and ratings agencies declared the government and state-run oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela to be in partial default for missing interest and principle payments on bonds.
About 100 people banged on saucepans around Brito and used rope, tires and debris to set up a street blockade.
Venezuelans earn a minimum of about 450,000 bolivars per month, US$135 at the official exchange rate, and US$4.50 on the black market, which is considered the reference rate.
That is also the nonsubsidized price for 1.5kg of pork, putting it out of reach for Brito, a cashier whose salary barely exceeds the legal minimum.
When it is available, subsidized meat sells for 30 times less.
Aside from missing their seasonal ham on the bone, protesters have complained about water and electricity shortages, which occur despite the fact that the country has the world’s largest proven reserves of oil.
Maduro acknowledged glitches in the distribution of ham, but blamed an international boycott linked, according to him, to severe economic sanctions imposed by Washington and to sabotage by Portugal, which exports the ham.
“Where did the ham go? We have been sabotaged. It’s the fault of one country: Portugal,” Maduro told the media.
“They bought all the ham available for Venezuela, absolutely all, and we should have imported it ... but they blocked our bank accounts and two ships that were coming” to Venezuela, he said.
Lisbon denied the accusations.
“The Portuguese government certainly does not have the power to sabotage ham,” Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs Augusto Santos Silva said.
“We live in a market economy and exports are the jurisdiction of business. There was obviously no political interference,” he said.
Raporal, a Portuguese exporter of ham on the bone, said Venezuela owes about 40 million euros (US$48 million) to suppliers under a 63.5 million euro contract signed last year.
While the suppliers await the funds they say they are owed, Jesus Castellanos, 64, is among those anxious for his ham.
“[Maduro] promised on television that he was going to make the ham come and now he gives us the fable of Portugal,” said the cobbler, who was also protesting. “People no longer believe his stories. People don’t want to live lies.”