CARACAS: Venezuelans facing severe food shortages might have been expected to welcome heavily subsidized bags of rice, milk and other staples — but the controversy didn’t take long to set in.
The bags, distributed to poor families every three weeks, represent President Nicolas Maduro’s latest plan to combat the increasingly desperate economic crisis that has taken hold of oil giant Venezuela as crude prices have collapsed over the past two years. But the program has already drawn a hail of criticism.
The bags are too skimpy, too infrequent and reserved mainly for the leftist president’s supporters, critics say.
Maduro launched the program to combat the black-market resale of subsidized food and crippling shortages, which he says are being artificially created by a business elite bent on destroying Venezuela’s socialist economic model and forcing him from power.
Under the new distribution plan, the government hands out food through so-called Supply and Production Committees headed by community leaders.
The acronym in Spanish is CLAP. But there hasn’t been much applause. The bags being distributed at a recent handout in Caracas held three kilos (6.5 pounds) of rice, one of milk, another of sugar, a package of black beans and a liter (quart) of cooking oil.
Similar bags are handed out once every three weeks.
“It helps, but it’s not enough to cover all our needs,” said expectant mother Yosmary Ramos, 19, in the impoverished neighborhood of Petare. “I’m going to need diapers, and milk for the baby costs 7,000 bolivars,” about $13 at the highest official rate in Venezuela’s complex, tightly controlled and dollar-starved foreign exchange system.
Maduro insists the bags are the answer. “They are the great instrument of the revolution to win the economic war,” he said last week.
“All power to the CLAPs.”
Herminia Rangel, who is in charge of verifying a list of 254 recipients for the local government, explained the system to AFP.
There are two types of bags, she said: a basic version called Mercal with “products made by the government,” and a “pre-paid” bag that must be reserved in advance.
The Mercal bag, for which recipients pay at pick-up, currently costs 910 bolivars ($1.70). The pre-paid bag costs more than four times that — 3,700 bolivars. The program has its supporters.
“The bag doesn’t have everything, but it takes a lot of pressure off my budget because I don’t have to buy on the black market and I can plan my spending,” said Mayerlin Monascal, a mother of three in the El Calvario neighborhood, near the tomb of late president Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s mentor. At black-market prices, a Mercal bag would cost 14 times as much.
But some hungry Venezuelans accuse Maduro of playing politics with food.
Several riots have erupted in recent weeks outside supermarkets when soldiers commandeered food shipments to give them to the CLAPs, outraging long lines of waiting customers. In El Calvario and surrounding neighborhoods, the army now stands guard when the bags are distributed.
Rumors have swirled that subsidized food will now be given only to the CLAPs. Food Minister Marco Torres denied that, but said the committees will in fact have priority.
Businesses have warned the system risks exacerbating the shortages. And the center-right opposition, which is battling to call a referendum on removing Maduro from power, is sharply critical.
“It’s unacceptable that the little food we have be handed out by the government through (the ruling Socialist) party,” opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said. “We must not allow food to be given a political color.” The government denies political favoritism.
“I’ve been in the homes of families that don’t believe in the revolution and we’re delivering their bags,” said Griselda Olivares, who coordinates the handouts for the ruling party in Caracas.
Source: Daily Times