Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Bolivarian Ruination and Starvation

"I used to have my own little market. Now I clean houses from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. When I'm not standing in line [to access scarce market goods]."
"I'm 50 years old, and I've never been hungry like this before."
Venezuelan Marys Rosalba

"This government has looted our country. And they're still doing it."
"Over there [in Venezuela], you wait in line all day for a kilo of rice and sometimes it runs out before your turn comes, so it's all for nothing."
Carlos Ortega, 68, retired Venezuelan geology professor
People arrive in San Antonio to cross over the Simon Bolivar international bridge to Colombia to take advantage of the temporary border opening in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, July 17, 2016.
Reuters/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Both Marys Rosalba and Carlos Ortega were in Colombia; she to try to buy scarce market items in the border town of Cucuta, and he to attend a medical appointment there. While there he also indulged in a bit of shopping, procuring a few pounds of beans, sugar and flour. It was all his Venezuelan pension would allow him to buy. As for Marys Rosalba, she came away with laundry detergent, tampons and toilet paper.

Colombians always historically viewed Venezuela as their wealthy neighbour. It is a country, after all, with vast resources of fossil fuels. And there was a time not so long ago when Venezuela lorded it over its neighbours, and compassionately offered oil at a fraction of its production cost, happy to subsidize fuel for its less fortunate neighbours. Cuba did very well by its comradely mentoring of Hugo Chavez. Chavez is dead, and so is the price of oil.

Even poverty-stricken Americans profited from Venezuelan heating oil at a preferential low cost when Hugo Chavez, smelling sulphur in the wake of George W. Bush at the United Nations, tweaked his proverbial nose highlighting the American poor dependency on the great-heartedness of fuel-generous Venezuela. A Venezuela busily lifting its own indigent poor into a more comfortable national status with the proceeds of oil sales.

A Venezuela that lacked the business and entrepreneurial sense to invest some of its profits back into modernizing its oil extraction facilities and building oil refineries so it wouldn't have to re-import its product, refined elsewhere. But that's the Bolivarian revolution; its socialist-centric view on politics and social policies eschewed business management and the need to prepare for the future.

The future arrived without Hugo Chavez, but Venezuela was gifted with his successor who may have known how to drive a public bus, but appears remiss in knowing how to administer the affairs of a nation. The poor Colombian town of Cucuta is now a lifeline for desperate Venezuelans, eager to shop where supermarkets actually store food on shelves full of assorted products that can be bought.

Venezuelans in their tens of thousands now stream across the border to look for basic goods whenever the Venezuelan government succumbs to their pleas to allow them to cross. The world's highest inflation rate combined with hapless mismanagement of the economy has resulted in worthless bank notes and a wholesale absence of consumer goods at home, let alone food staples. The nation hasn't the financial resources to afford to import all the food it needs for its population.

"They used to come here to sell. Now they come to buy", observed Viviana Lozano, a Colombian shopkeeper who was forced to acquire a money-counting device in order to process the giant wads of Venezuelan bolivars proffered when making even minimal sales to those whose plight she could ease, to supply as much as they could afford. A 100 Venezuelan bank note has a value of ten cents, U.S. She has hired ten people to help her with the crush of shoppers each weekend.

Long-distance buses carry Venezuelans hundreds of miles to get to the weekend crossing openings. Where Venezuelans race madly to supermarkets to cram duffel bags and backpacks with sacks of rice, sugar, corn meal and milk powder. Nicolas Maduro resents any notion that the border can be viewed as a "humanitarian corridor" for desperately hungry Venezuelans. The very thought of Venezuelans being underfed is a figment of someone's crazy imagination.

The inflation rate sees consumer prices increasing by 700 percent even while the country's economy shrank ten percent in 2016. President Maduro insists that 40 percent of Venezuelan goods are smuggled out of the country by criminals looking to take advantage of their subsidized prices. Government price caps have added to the shortages, additionaly limiting the nation's ability to import basic food items.

The Venezuelan military has been deployed at the border, but armed sentries standing on guard, mostly turn away from the sight of Venezuelans making illegal crossings through the shallow river that takes them across the border. In central Cucuta, piles of containers of powdered milk stamped with the "Mercal" label of the Venezuelan government are unloaded for sale at inflated prices. The high-octane gasoline that sells for two cents a gallon at government service stations in Venezuela is sold for $10 in six-gallon plastic jugs.

The Venezuelan currency has lost over 90 percent of its value in the last several years. Bolivars have depreciated in value so swiftly that Venezuelans who arrive in Colombia clutching their cash cache discover that it isn't worth as much as they'd hoped. Leading Venezuelans to admit they are unable to have enough to eat, with meals consisting of little more than cornmeal cakes and fruit.

People walk to cross over the Simon Bolivar international bridge to Colombia to take advantage of the temporary border opening in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, July 17, 2016.
Reuters/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

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