Hugo Chávez’s food fight

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


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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