Hugo Chávez’s food fight

As food rots in ports, the president blames grocers and seizes stores. But will voters buy his line?

by Josh Dehaas

PAMPA FILM/ZUMA/KEYSTONE PRESS

When 80,000 tonnes of food were found rotting in shipping containers at Puerto Cabello in the north of Venezuela in early June, church leaders called it “a sin that heaven is crying over.”
Apparently, the country’s state-owned oil company, PDVAL, which distributes subsidized food to Venezuela’s state-owned grocery stores, had been too disorganized to distribute it.

Subsequently, politicians in other coastal towns have confirmed the existence of rotting food in their ports, too. In the state of Anzoátegui, powdered milk never made it inland from port; in the state of Carabobo, a local councillor told the newspaper El Universal that he’d seen 1,600 tonnes of rice decaying on shore.

In a country where grandmothers elbow each other out of the way when shipments of sugar arrive at the grocery store, it’s hard to see how this scandal won’t damage the president’s popularity. But Hugo Chávez’s tried and true response—blame the capitalists—might just be enough to pull him through the crucial fall elections, says Michael Shifter, president of The Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

“He’s very good at projecting the image that speculators and investors don’t have the interests of average Venezeulans in mind—but that he does,” Shifter explains. Predictably, in a bid to deflect attention, Chávez responded to the food scandal by jailing three PDVAL officials and intensifying his war on “bourgeoisie” food sellers. Such scapegoating seemed to work in January: Chávez’s devaluation of the currency made imports more expensive, yet he warned private grocers that if they raised prices, he’d seize their stores. Sure enough, on Jan, 17, he expropriated six private Exito grocery stores, accusing them of “hoarding.” His poll numbers remained high, points out Shifter.

But Chávez is running out of capitalists to blame. The largest food company yet to be expropriated brews the country’s popular Polar beer. Chávez announced he would “take every last plant” if Polar’s billionaire owner didn’t “stop messing around.” The president has since backed off. “There was a chance there would be a shortage of beer,” explains Shifter. “That would be political suicide.”

Independent grocers are the latest target. A butcher in Caracas told the Guardian he is facing six years in jail for “speculating” and “inflating prices”—charges once reserved for chains rather than mom-and-pop operations. It’s hard to say how arresting individual business owners will play with average Venezuelans, but Shifter predicts Chávez may try to“make the case that the reason you have inflation is the small business owners who are jacking up prices.”

Support for Chávez is fluctuating: his approval rating dipped to 42 per cent in April and bumped up to 48 per cent in May, reported Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis. Still, that’s a big drop from the 63 per cent of votes he received in the presidential elections four years ago. The true test of the popularity of his food war may not come until Sept. 26. Chávez’s party will face a united opposition in National Assembly elections for the first time in years, and the government is worried. “They won’t win a majority,” says Shifter. “But it will be a new political game.”




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Hugo Chávez’s food fight

  1. [quote]the country's state-owned oil company, PDVAL, which distributes subsidized food to Venezuela's state-owned grocery stores[/quote]

    Perhaps that's part of the problem right there ?

    I think his approach is sound in this application but it won't work in half-measure. If you allow producers to set their own prices, those prices WILL be based on maximizing profits rather than providing the product at a cost based on the cost of production. That's just capitalism.

    The drop in the polls makes sense – the bottom line that people see is rotting food while they line up and jostle for what IS actually available. If he can't get the food into hungry mouths, voters will pick the guy who says he can (whether he can deliver on the promise or not). In essence, he'll lose the election to a phantom if he doesn't deal with this effectively and quickly.

    • I'm amazed you can write that whole post in a serious tone.

      I guess if the food at one point in the chain is too expensive you just throw that guy in jail. And if the food at the next step up is too expensive, you throw that guy in jail. And the next. Until you get to the person actually creating the food, and when he says he can't make it that cheaply, you just throw him in jail.

      Then I'm sure Hugo will start growing it himself in his backyard for everyone.

  2. It's funny, Obama has made very similar statements to most of Chavez' in the past year, just on a much larger scale. Two peas in a pod.

  3. And the odds of this story being talked about in the U.S. old media are slim to none, unless Chris Matthews decided to praise Chavez' for locking up any businessman who wanted to make a profit instead of giving his services away. I guess I'm surprised a little to see it printed here! Good for you Macleans

  4. Ah, the stench of socialism. State owned companies never function efficiently. The only one to blame here is Chavez himself.

  5. The farmers may end up in jail yet, the food can be traced back to them.

    • BRAVO!!

  6. Every time I think private enterprise is a complete screw-up, I just have to look at government-run enterprise to reassure myself.

    Chavez's approach of blaming everything but his statist policies even though the industry in question is state run would be comical if it wasn't so sad. It actually reminds me a bit of another statist politician (granted, far more constrained) whose policies have led to huge unemployment, but who insists that it would have been far worse if his policies hadn't been enacted. "Jobs created or saved" is the phrase that comes to mind.

  7. I wonder if anyone here who praises Chávez has ever been to Venezuela….what a bunch of crap

  8. Hugo Chavez = typical, stupid, violent, incompetent, useless Communist retard.

    Tip for Canadian lefties: his mug shot on a t-shirt could be a great addition to your wardrobe, why limit yourself to just Che Guevera!

  9. It's good Chávez didn't take over the Sahara. Nothing much would have happened for the first couple of years and then there would have been a shortage of sand.

  10. Hugo Chavez has truly worked hard to separate and destroy a country that was once united and flourishing . He's created hate, hunger, violence, terror. A madman in a suit. He took everything that had life and sucked it dry. I saw it all happen from the beginning, and can't wait to see the end.

  11. If Venezuelans want Chavez, they should have Chavez. If Venezuelans want to starve, they should be free to starve. It's no one else's business.

  12. Communists common weapon is envy /jealousy. Pit and wedge professions, groups, or people against each other. It works all the time.

  13. The comments here are a bit baffling. The problem here isn't state vs. private, the problem here is that Chavez' has been using socialism vs. capitalism as an excuse to create scapegoats and divert attention from how he's been using the country for his own ends rather than for those of the people. He's corrupt and I'm pretty sure he couldn't give a damn about capitalism or socialism except for how it'll let him better stack the courts, pass more government assets to his party, curtail the media, help cripple opposition parties, etc etc.

    • Ah, I see. So as all socialists say about all the other failed attempts at socialism, "they're just doing it wrong". So It's Chavez that's the problem, not Socialism, I get it. We just have to find a group of politicians that can handle immense power while always thinking of the people first. No problem…any day now.

      • All of the other failed attempts at socialism? My definition of socialism includes the kind practiced in Sweden and other countries in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. You'll have a hard time convincing me that they've somehow failed.

        Chavez' biggest accomplishment has been getting people worldwide to see him in terms of capitalism vs. socialism instead of looking at his record. "Socialists" turn a blind eye to his idiocy and "capitalists" blame his failings on how he's a supposed socialist and provide him with scapegoats.

  14. Remember, this clown is a hero to the wing nut lefties in Hollywood. Also, the similarities between this goof and Obama are startling.

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