Fragility and hunger in Venezuela

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Venezuelans trek over an informal crossing to reach Cúcuta, Colombia, April 2019. ©UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

By Jordan Teague and Rahma Sohail

This is the fourth in a five-part series on transforming assistance to fragile contexts to end hunger.

Although Latin America has less than 10 percent of the global population, almost half of all COVID-19- related deaths have taken place there, and many of the low-income countries hit hardest in the first year of the pandemic are in Latin America.

Latin America soon emerged as an epicenter of the global pandemic despite the fact that COVID-19 cases did not appear in the region until much later than they were apparent in Europe and the United States.

A major reason for this is that the majority of Latin American countries faced myriad political and governance challenges before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Corruption in government and low levels of both mandatory taxation levels and actual tax collection contributed to many problems that fueled the pandemic, particularly inadequate public health systems, very high levels of economic inequality, and poorly resourced public education systems.

In recent years, Venezuela has faced what some consider “the Americas’ greatest single humanitarian crisis.” The nation’s economy and political structure collapsed even though it possesses the world’s largest known petroleum reserves. More than 5 million people have now fled the country and an estimated 91 percent of those who remain live in poverty. Nearly a third of all Venezuelans—more than 9 million people— are food insecure or malnourished. These figures are expected to rise as the coronavirus continues to spread.

The dire pre-pandemic circumstances have exacerbated the death and suffering caused by COVID-19. 80 percent of Venezuela’s hospitals were understaffed and 60 percent were not equipped with basic necessities such as running water and reliable electricity.

For several years now, public protests have swept the country as people denounced the government’s poor policies and other shortcomings that led to an economic collapse and food shortages. In 2018, a disputed presidential election worsened the political situation. The Organization of American States, the European Union, and other international organizations declared that the result was not valid. 

According to a blog post from the U.S. Institute of Peace, the government has used the COVID-19 pandemic to oppress its critics; for example, quarantines that are necessary for public health are being used to “reestablish political and social control,” and the government is charged with concealing the true numbers of COVID-19 victims.

According to the International Crisis Group, Venezuela is now on the brink of a famine. Lines at public food distribution sites stretch for miles, clean water is scarce and medicine even scarcer. The country’s currency has been devalued so many times that it is worth almost to nothing, signaling surging rates of inflation. As early as the end of April 2020, inflation on food items had reached 251 percent. The only “option” for those who cannot find food in stores is to pay up to 10 times more on the black market, an impossibility for most.

In a further threat to food security, fuel shortages are preventing farmers from operating their equipment to plant crops. More than half of the agricultural land that produced crops in 2019 was projected to lie fallow in 2020. Some agricultural sectors are faring even worse—the dairy industry is working at just 12 percent of capacity and one in six sugar mills is currently operational.

Further problems in accessing essential supplies have been created by U.S. sanctions seeking to disrupt trade between Venezuela and Iran. U.S. sanctions on oil tankers traveling from Iran to Venezuela have caused the price of oil to increase by as much as 30 percent—this at a time when the pandemic caused global oil prices to fall to historic lows, and in a country rich in oil reserves.

The Venezuelan government has deployed the army to control rationing at gas stations across the country. Farmers wait hours in line for their insufficient rations of fuel, and those who can afford to buy more at exorbitant black market prices do this as well. The scarcity of fuel has repercussions further down the food supply chain as well—for example, produce often cannot be transported to distribution centers for lack of fuel.

Stay tuned to Institute Insights next month to wrap up this series on fragility with ways to move forward.

Jordan Teague is interim co-director, policy analysis and coalition building, and Rahma Sohail was the 2020 Crook fellow with Bread for the World Institute.

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