Several times a year, Kelvin gets a cash bonus from the Nicolás Maduro regime. It’s money that suddenly appears on his government-issued ID, known as the “Fatherland Card,” which also works like a debit card.
The latest perk, announced this month, is called the “Rebel Bonus” — and some six million people are expected to get it.
“We the poor, we’re also entitled to something,” said Kelvin, a community organizer in Caracas, defending Maduro’s policies.
Getting government handouts doesn’t sound particularly rebellious, particularly when the bonus is less than $4 and is paid at the administration’s whim. The money “isn’t enough to live on,” said Kelvin who, like others in this story, agreed to talk to the Miami Herald as long as his last name wasn’t used for fear of government reprisals.
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Even so, the bonuses, perks and subsidies have become a lifeline for many of the nation’s poorest, who have seen their purchasing power decimated by the world’s highest inflation. Prices increase 3.5 percent a day, according to the opposition-led National Assembly.
Meanwhile, critics say the benefits have become the regime’s tools for “social control” and the reason that Maduro has maintained approval ratings of about 20 percent despite the tanking economy and political chaos.
One of the regime’s main initiatives is the CLAP boxes of subsidized food that the government says are distributed to 13.3 million people.
Kelvin says the opposition calls the handouts “dog food,” but the only people not desperate enough to accept them are mostly because “they hate the government.”
The food is thought to be delivered at a steep loss to the Maduro administration. People are paying 150 bolivares solidarios, or about 5 cents, for this month’s food disbursement.
“That’s not even enough to pay for the cardboard box the products come in,” Kelvin said. That same amount of money will buy you three bus trips or half a small cup of coffee.
And yet even people who disagree with Maduro and his policies need the help. The latest survey known by its Spanish acronym, ENCOVI, which is done by universities to assess the socio-economic conditions in Venezuela, found that 91 percent of Venezuelans classify as poor.
Kelvin said that of the 600 people who receive the CLAP box in his community “only a handful are chavistas,” or government supporters, an indicator that the Maduro regime doesn’t discriminate in handing out the benefit. Assuming Kelvin’s figure is accurate, it also suggests that the polls are right in their assessment that Maduro’s popularity is extremely low.
“The situation for Maduro has gotten out of hand,” Kelvin said of the hyperinflation and the constant increases in food prices. But he blames the opposition for the nation’s troubles.
WILL THE REBELS REBEL?
The “Rebel Bonus” is just one of several cash payments that the government makes every year. There are specialty bonuses that go out to disabled citizens, children, the elderly and everyone else carrying the “Fatherland Card.”
The cards, enabled with QR technology from China’s ZTE tech giant, have now been issued to 17 million people, and members of the opposition and local media say they can track cardholders’ movements with embedded GPS trackers, tell who they voted for, and even know if they own a pet.
Others doubt the cards are that sophisticated, but the general sense in Venezuela is that those who have the cards, and its perks, are sacrificing their privacy.
Maduro has been struggling for political survival since Jan. 23, when Juan Guaidó, head of National Assembly, swore himself in as interim president, stating it was his constitutional duty to do so and call for new elections.
Maduro, who insists he won the right to rule through 2025, accuses Guaidó of being a Washington stooge and part of a larger plot to topple his administration.
While Guaidó has broad popular support and the backing of much of the international community, Maduro still seems to have the loyalty of the military.
Recently, Maduro once again rejected Guaidó’s plans to bring international humanitarian aid into the country.
“Venezuela is not a country of beggars, we do not need anybody,” Maduro said. He also responded by issuing the “Rebel Bonus.”
The main collection point for the CLAP boxes in eastern Caracas is a former textile factory that takes up several blocks and is being occupied by a notorious pro-government group called the “Comuna Tocomé.”
The factory sits in the heart of Los Ruices, a once middle-class neighborhood hard hit by the economic crisis. Many people from the neighborhood are fearful of the factory, which is full of squatters and is notoriously violent.
But Mike, a driver, doesn’t care about the factory’s reputation. Three times over the last year he has driven his beat-up truck to the building to collect 389 CLAP boxes and then deliver them to a kindergarten where beneficiaries pick them up.
“I didn’t want to receive the box at first, but everything is so expensive,” he said. The last box he received had two kilos (about four pounds) of corn flour from Mexico, one kilo of powdered milk, black beans, lentils and sugar, two packages of pasta, ketchup, mayonnaise and four cans of tuna.
“That’s…less than 15 days of food,” said Mike, who lives with his ailing mother. “What I really want is to be able to buy what I want, not what they force you to eat.”
But Mike’s one of the lucky ones — his CLAP box comes with tuna, a luxury in a country where meat is scarce and it takes a month’s minimum wage to buy a kilo (about two pounds) of beef.
Virginia, a pro-government organizer in Los Teques, said her community was “fighting” to get CLAP boxes with milk and other basic goods. “We only get flour, rice, oil and sugar,” she explained.
Fransheska is the teenage daughter of an Air Force officer and, like most teens, spends lots of time on social media: that’s how a reporter first contacted her.
The military is key to Maduro’s support and it’s popular wisdom that they receive the choicest items in their CLAP boxes.
Fransheska said her family last received the handout in December, but she wasn’t impressed with its contents.
“The milk that comes in the box is super mala [super bad], it’s salty and gives you diarrhea,” she said. One time the entire box consisted of eight kilos (nearly 18 pounds) of lentils.
Bela, a cashier in her 20s, said the government handouts mask the fact that life has become unaffordable for most Venezuelans.
“People have come to expect help from the government, and I think that’s a bad thing, being dependent on a bag,” she said. “I work in a supermarket as a cashier and there are single items that cost more than one month minimum wage.”
But for many, the bonuses and subsidies are one of the perks of living in Venezuela and under Maduro’s “Bolivarian Revolution.” Kelvin called the food subsidies “an acquired right.”
Emanuel, once a messenger and courier, said he quit his low-paying job once he started receiving the food and bonuses.
“It beats working for minimum wage,” he said. “You don’t spend any money on bus fare and you don’t have to get up early.”