Oil prices sank, and the government couldn’t pay for the unsustainable subsidies and welfare programs it had created under Chávez. The country’s other gutted industries couldn’t respond, says Cárdenas, a foreign policy official during the George W. Bush administration: “It laid the whole bankruptcy of the system bare.”
Maduro doubled down. The new president printed more money, and the value of currency plummeted. Basic goods became unaffordable. Price-controlled items grew scarce.
These days, many Venezuelans line up at grocery stores before dawn, hoping to buy scant quantities of items like sugar, oil, or eggs. A national identification number dictates the single day each week a shopper may queue for price-controlled goods. Some people miss work to wait for items they can’t find. Flour is a rarity. Toilet paper is a luxury. Bread shelves are barren.
Some items in stores aren’t price-controlled, but they’re often too expensive for many shoppers. Black markets flourish, but many of those goods are out of reach for plenty of Venezuelans as well.
That doesn’t mean food isn’t arriving. Imports have plunged as the government runs out of money, but the items that do arrive in Venezuelan ports often languish in a web of corruption.
Maduro placed military officials in charge of the country’s food system, and an Associated Press investigation in December reported widespread corruption and waste.
For example, when local grocer Jose Campos ran out of food supplies for his store, he says he visited an illegal market in the middle of the night to buy flour from military officials. He paid 100 times the government-set price. “The military would be watching over whole bags of money,” Campos told the AP. “They always had what I needed.”
Luis Pena, a director at a Caracas-based import business, told the AP he has to pay off military officials to bring food imports into the country: “It’s an unbroken chain of bribery from when your ship comes in until the food is driven out in trucks.” If he doesn’t pay the bribes, the food sits and spoils.
Daniel Arteaga, a crane operator, told the news agency he watched as workers at a state-run warehouse buried hundreds of boxes of spoiled meat imported by the government. The report said photos showed men in military fatigues burying beef and chicken at a local dump. Residents at a nearby slum said they dig up food when the military leaves to see if they can find something for their children. (In a study of Venezuelan children under the age of 5, the Catholic relief agency Caritas found that 11 percent suffered from acute malnutrition.)
But hunger isn’t just a problem for the poor.
The extreme shortages mean Venezuelans across classes struggle to find food. Samuel Olson, the Venezuelan pastor, says middle-class members of the large church he leads in Caracas are sometimes embarrassed to admit their families are hungry: “You can see the hurt and sense of shame on their faces.”
A church elder with a stable income recently told Olson he couldn’t feed his family of five. “One can hardly believe it,” says the pastor. “That this person has been going hungry for a week or two weeks, but has said nothing until the hunger becomes too great.”
Meanwhile, government officials deny the severity of the calamity, and they refuse to allow outside assistance. “The humanitarian corridor assumes the existence of a humanitarian crisis,” declared Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez. “It’s a theory constructed by the Pentagon so that the U.S. can intervene.”
Hunger isn’t theoretical for the Venezuelans seeking help from Olson’s church. The members of Las Acacias Evangelical Pentecostal Church—the largest evangelical church in Caracas—pool resources and try to help others. Olson, who is also head of the Evangelical Alliance of Venezuela, says God has provided items for the church to share.
Each week, the congregation distributes food parcels to families with no supplies. Every other week, congregants make soup for members of the community and offer a gospel-based message. They call the midday gatherings the “Lord’s Lunch.”
For smaller churches, resources are even more limited, and efforts are often entirely grassroots. David Berkey, an evangelical missionary in Caracas since 1992, says the few dozen members of his church help each other with basic networking. If a member finds an unexpected stock of items at a store, he’ll sometimes buy as much as he can to share or trade with others.
“It’s given people lots of opportunities to help each other, which is what we’re supposed to do as believers in Christ,” he says. “We’re having to make that very practical these days.”
Berkey and his wife have avoided long lines by purchasing items that aren’t price-controlled. But those items are limited too, and Berkey says they make meals out of what they can find at the store. Like many Venezuelans, they’ve lost about 20 pounds. Supporters have offered to send funds to buy food for those in need, but Berkey says it’s complicated when items just aren’t available: “This is not a problem that money can solve.”
Not all losses are physical. The church is losing people as well. Members who grew up in the congregation have left Venezuela to find work elsewhere. They’ve studied in universities, but can’t find jobs in their home country. They’ve scattered to Spain, Canada, the United States, Peru, and China. Their parents watch their children leave and raise families in another country.
“These are people who have a lot to offer as Venezuelans,” says Berkey. “But they are being squeezed out.”
Some 2 million Venezuelans have left the country since Chávez took office in 1999, according to Venezuelan migration expert Tomás Páez. The country’s population is 31 million. Venezuela now leads the world in asylum requests to the United States, surpassing China last year.
Even if Venezuelans can find enough to eat, they face another major hurdle: finding decent healthcare. The country has had socialized medicine, but without sufficient supplies, doctors can’t treat basic illnesses.
Over the last year, infant mortality has jumped 30 percent. Maternal mortality is up 66 percent. Most of the deaths are preventable: Mothers sometimes get infections because hospitals don’t have soap for cleaning. They die from infections because hospitals don’t have access to antibiotics.
According to the Venezuelan group Doctors for Health, 64 percent of hospitals reported having no baby formula. Last year, the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela reported 85 percent of all drugs are either difficult or impossible to find.