SAN JUAN DE LOS MORROS, Venezuela Misael León still believes in Venezuela.
Standing in the muggy shade on his farm, the native of Medellín, Colombia, said he’s optimistic that someday, someone’s going to fix his adopted country.
León has had a bad run of it lately — the same run that’s brought this resource-rich nation to its knees.
He describes life as a fight for survival. He struggles to find food for his family. One of the first words out of his mouth is “escasez” — shortage — a reference to a nationwide lack of everything, from food to laundry soap to car parts.
León gets milk, eggs and some meat from the animals he raises on the northern edge of Venezuela’s agricultural region. But he has to buy basics such as rice, flour, pasta and sugar. Supplies of those items are scarce.
“Anywhere you go in Venezuela, any city, any village, you’ll see a line to buy food,” he said. “And that’s not the worst part. Worse is that you stand in line, and when you get to the place where you make the purchase, the food is all gone.”
Eighteen days traveling across Venezuela last month, talking to people in all walks of life about their country, found León’s observation repeated dozens of times. Venezuela is in crisis, its economy shrinking, its oil wealth no longer generating the kind of money the country needs to import products, its farms and factories no longer producing enough to satisfy its citizens.
That, however, is where the agreement ends. The cause of the shortages remains a hotly debated topic that pits the country’s current socialist rulers against an opposition rooted in its business classes.
The conflict played out Sunday when the Venezuelan opposition won a two-thirds majority in a critical National Assembly election. With a super majority, the opposition will have the ability to fire ministers and the vice president, name Supreme Court justices, and, crucially, launch presidential recall referendums.
Shortages of food and other basic items was among the biggest issues on voters’ minds.
León is one of many who blame the government for allowing things to get so bad. The people in power caused Venezuela’s drastic fall in production, he says. They confiscated farmland as well as private factories that produce staples like cement, iron and car batteries. Then they put people with no expertise in charge of those resources.
León describes a vicious cycle where even feed for animals is hard to come by. That has driven feed prices up, so León is forced to buy less and lower-quality food for his cows, which causes them to produce less milk. His income has dropped so much that he now feeds his hog scraps and food waste from a local restaurant. He drives a cab to supplement his income. He tries to hang on.
The Venezuelan government tries to hang on by rationing supplies, limiting how much and when customers can buy them. The last digit of a person’s government-issued ID determines which day of the week he or she can make purchases.
To buy diapers, parents must present their baby’s birth certificate, as well as their own IDs.
The idea is to stop people from hoarding supplies and selling them at several times the price on the black market. Grocery trafficking is a real thing in Venezuela.
Some 80 miles south of San Juan de los Morros on Highway 2 lies Calabozo, a dusty city next to a major reservoir in the heart of the Venezuelan plains.
Calabozo is the home of ranchers Rolando Sosa and his wife, Jeannette Montoya, who tell a story almost exactly like León’s.
But they don’t share León’s optimism for the future.
Sosa and Montoya still seethe with anger at the government. In 2008, they said, a group of people they believe had the favor of the Chávez government made a claim against a small section of their land, saying it was idle.
Sosa and Montoya said they fought the claim, but that only resulted in the government confiscating all of their ranch, leaving them just the house and the fenced yard around it.
The people who were awarded the ranch let the land and livestock go to waste, Sosa said.
Finally, after six years of fighting, the government returned about 40 percent of the land to Sosa and Montoya, with restrictions on how they can use it. Animals were emaciated. They said part of the land had been burned, and equipment was broken.
They’ve restored order since then. Sosa maintains a small but healthy-looking herd of cattle. The grass appears decently irrigated. The yard and house are tidy and pleasant.
But it hasn’t been enough. Discouraged by their prospects, both of their sons followed the path of many young Venezuelans and moved out of their native country. Their daughter will move to the United States soon, they said.
The family’s breakup was the hardest pill to swallow.
“The human capital of a ranch and those who know best how to run a ranch are your children,” Sosa said. “There was no reason to do all the damage they caused us. Above all, the damage to our family. The human part, right?”
In Caracas, Lisandro Pérez pounded his desk with his left fist.
“The government must put these people in jail!” he shouted.
Pérez was talking about Venezuela’s business leaders. He believes they’re breaking the Fair Price Law, a piece of legislation passed by the National Assembly that restricts sellers’ profit margins to 30 percent. As evidence, he cites seemingly overnight doubling or tripling of prices on things such as flour or cooking oil.
“They want a profit of 80, 90, 100, 150 percent without concern for the population,” he said. “In truth, they aren’t interested in the needs of the Venezuelan. The only thing that interests them, fundamentally, is their own profits.”
Pérez is principal at the José Gregorio Hernández elementary school in Caracas’ 23 de Enero neighborhood and a leading figure in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, whose members control most of the country’s government. His office is an homage to Chávez and the socialist revolution the late president started.
A 2014 calendar, topped with a photo of Chávez in a Caracas rainstorm at the last major political rally where he appeared, hangs on Pérez’s wall. The message on the photo is a popular rhyme around Venezuela these days: “Chávez vive. La patria sigue.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring in English: “Chávez lives. The fatherland continues.”
Many of the businesspeople Pérez accuses of economic sabotage are members of Fedecamaras, a nationwide coalition of business leaders. Besides raising prices, Pérez said, Fedecamaras members have been hiding and exporting their products to stir up discontent with a government they hate and will do anything to remove.