Chronic food shortages are now a fact of life in Venezuela. The South American country, roughly twice the size of California, has stood at the brink of economic collapse for more than a year now. The problem, obviously, isn’t resources or population. (It has the 45th largest population in the world and is rich in oil, minerals and diamonds.) Its problem is governance, poor economic planning, and what many say is the Nicolás Maduro government’s over-reliance on commodity controls. Taken on face value, it’s an excellent example of the trickle-down effect that political ideologies can have on a nation’s sustainability.
But it is still hard for most of us here in North America to wrap our brains around what a national food shortage would mean. Most of us think of food scarcity as an intermittent issue we face as a consequence of our own actions. We either don’t have money for food, or we lack the transportation or health to get to the store. But we don’t think of food as being something that could just vanish from the shelves because of governmental, financial or ideological policies.
The local farmers’ markets that many of us frequent during the summer seem like a mainstay of North American life. What if they ceased to exist because local farmers couldn’t get the seeds and the fertilizer to nurture their gardens? What if the very products that government controls were meant to protect, like eggs, milk and cheese, were no longer available because the economy could no longer sustain them?
It’s a depressing thought, I know. Venezuela, as heart-breaking as its story has been, exemplifies the delicate balance between political ideology and reality on the street where policies are translated into life-and-death decisions.
That reality was brought home all the closer for North American readers this week by Bloomberg Reports. The story, written by Bloomberg’s Fabíola Zerpa, describes a middle-income family’s 30-day struggle for food security. It begins with a search for staples like rice, oil and laundry detergent and a shopping trip that would seem routine by most North American standards. But as Zerpa, Bloomberg’s reporter in Caracas points out, little is routine in Venezuela these days — least of all food shopping.
The government’s ‘anti-hoarding’ policies put basic foods like canned tuna and milk out of reach for most Venezuelans and force many to spend hours in line waiting to buy a single product at inflated prices. Zerpa’s month-long diary of trips to stores is filled with small hard-won victories and days of failed attempts to buy just enough food for her larder.
And for all it does to paint the picture of what social dysfunction really looks like on a national level, it still can’t quite convey the impact of those widening shortages. Nicholas Casey, Andes bureau chief of the New York Times based in Caracas, offered another perspective: The real measure of Venezuela’s crisis isn’t on the streets in the block-long waits for bread or cheese, but in the hospitals where the most basic amenities we associate with 21st-century health care are now too pricey to afford.
For decades, the measure of a country’s health has always been its newborns, those who who are most dependent on the resources of a country’s healthcare system. That’s why child mortality is always a key statistic when it comes to a developing nation’s ability to thrive. And in Venezuela, Casey points out, it’s no different. With spiraling deaths from inadequate healthcare, Venezuela’s medical system no longer supports even those in greatest need.
North American analysts who loathe to accept Venezuela’s commitment to socialism often blame its demise on its political structure. With more than half of the country’s revenue tied up the the plummeting values of its oil reserves, that seems like a simplistic answer for a country that for decades defined its existence by its Bolivarian socialist heritage. But if there is any truth to that analysis, it most likely lies in its assumption that Venezuela can control its fate in a world where climate change is transforming the value we place on the fuels we use, the environment we safeguard and the way we do business.