Malnutrition Confirmed in Venezuela
Recently my former research assistant on Venezuela, Antulio Rosales, forwarded me a report by Anabella Abadi in an English-language website called Caracas Chronicles. The report is called “Caritas Study finds Childhood Hunger Racing to Crisis Levels,” and it summarizes the finding of the Catholic organization, Caritas Venezuela, which surveyed children in several of the poorest regions of Venezuela. You can find Abadi’s article here.
The gist of this report is that in Venezuela, once the richest country in Latin America, childhood malnutrition in some of the poorest areas of the country has now reached levels of what is called GAM, global acute malnutrition. When ten per cent of kids are malnourished, a region is at the serious level; when fifteen per cent are malnourished, it’s at the critical level. In twenty-five of the poorest parishes that Caritas surveyed, GAM was at 8.9 per cent between October and December 2016. Many of these parishes are isolated, with poor access to public services and high rates of poverty.
I have been following Venezuela for several years, and have posted blogs on the situation there on several occasions. You can access them here:
I’ve also written an article in Human Rights Quarterly (volume 37, no.4, 2015, pp. 1024-45) on Venezuela, which you can access on-line or email me for a copy at email@example.com. And I’ve discussed Venezuela in my recent book, State Food Crimes (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
At the time I sent my book to the press in October 2015, I had read one report about malnutrition and was worried about what might happen: now I know that it is quite widespread.
Conveniently, the government of Venezuela no longer releases statistics that could damage its international reputation. According to Abadi’s article, the last time the government released data on childhood malnutrition was in 2007, just at the time that food shortages started. UN data is out of date. And it’s even more worrisome that the Food and Agriculture Organization gave President Nicolás Maduro an award in 2013 for reducing malnutrition, when there was already plenty of evidence of food shortages. Maduro became President in 2013 after Hugo Chávez, the President whose policies started the food crisis, died.
As Abadi’s article said, the problem is not the low price of oil (which is often reported as the cause of food shortages, at least on CBC radio). And it’s not because of weather events. It’s because of incompetence, corruption, and an evolving dictatorship. For over a decade now the government has controlled the price of food; these prices are so low that many food producers and distributors have gone out of business. The government has also expropriated productive ranches and farms. I personally know a Venezuelan refugee here in Canada whose family’s ranch was expropriated, and now nothing is produced on it at all.
Food is rationed with guards standing outside supermarkets; people have to show their ID to get in and can only shop on certain days of the week. Sometimes they have to be willing to give biometric information as well. People line up for hours, sometimes for days, hoping to find food. There isn’t enough milk for babies.
More and more people are moving to other countries to find food. There’s also a thriving smuggling industry where Venezuelans buy food at low prices in Venezuela itself, sell it across the border to Colombia where the price is raised, then other Venezuelans travel to Colombia to buy it back.
Corruption eats up enormous amounts of food, whose distribution is controlled by the military. Exporters to Venezuela have to pay huge bribes; so do importers, truckers, buyers, local vendors, and everyone else in the supply chain. If you don’t pay the bribes, food is left to rot in plain sight of starving citizens. You can see a detailed article about this corruption here:
According to Abadi’s article, recently a high school student confronted President Maduro to complain that the lunch program at her school had been cancelled. In a show of supreme indifference, Maduro replied by asking her what she personally was doing to solve the food crisis, saying (according to Antulio’s translation) “You cannot just make a request, you have to mobilize, go to the streets so that your word is heard.” Maduro’s comment is ironic, given that the government has become increasingly repressive, jailing and torturing political opponents.
One of the problems here is that the international community can do so little to help Venezuelans. There’s no international law that says a country’s rulers can’t mess up the economy if they want to. There’s no option of humanitarian intervention. Maduro and his clique don’t care at all about international human rights law. The best option to pressure them is through the Organization of American States and other Latin American organizations, but so far that hasn’t stopped or even modified the corruption around food distribution.
Malnutrition in Venezuela is entirely avoidable. A brutal, callous, stupid and corrupt leader supported by equally awful advisors caused it and perpetuates it. I don’t know whether Maduro is personally making money from oil revenues and food rations, but a lot of other people are. At best, he is an ignorant thug.