As hunger feeds discontent, Venezuelans press for presidential recall

A man who was waiting in line at a grocery store argues with a Bolivarian National Police officer as people continue to wait for food to arrive at a store in Caracas, Venezuela on Wednesday. Tensions rose after customers waited in line for hours.
A man who was waiting in line at a grocery store argues with a Bolivarian National Police officer as people continue to wait for food to arrive at a store in Caracas, Venezuela on Wednesday. Tensions rose after customers waited in line for hours. AP

Amid grocery-store riots and looting that have left a handful dead and hundreds detained, Oscar Pineda, 70, got up before dawn this week to do the only thing he thought might put food back on the table: press for a presidential recall.

In the middling town of Barinas, in western Venezuela, Pineda waited in line with about 300 people in the rain to “validate” his signature — one of the multiple steps required to trigger early elections in hopes of ousting President Nicolás Maduro. But despite the enthusiasm and determination of the crowds, he said he wasn’t hopeful.

“I don’t think they’re ever going to let the recall happen,” Pineda said of the administration’s foot-dragging. “But I went to provide my signature just so I don’t give up all hope.”

The crisis here is traveling at the speed of a bullet train and diplomacy works at the speed of a bicycle

Oswaldo Ramirez, ORC Consultores

Venezuela is caught in the grips of a social, economic and humanitarian crisis that has sparked a flurry of protests and diplomatic hand-wringing. In Washington, D.C., this week, the Organization of American States gathered to discuss the crisis and Caracas’ response to it. And the White House sent veteran diplomat Thomas Shannon, the under secretary for political affairs, to Venezuela to meet with Maduro and the opposition in hopes of building ties and averting chaos.

But even as people hailed the efforts as a step in the right direction, they wondered whether they might make a difference.

“The crisis here is traveling at the speed of a bullet train and diplomacy works at the speed of a bicycle,” said Oswaldo Ramirez, the director of ORC Consultores, a Caracas-based political analysis firm.

Hungry Nation

At issue is hunger. As Venezuela has seen its oil revenue evaporate, it’s running out of funds to import food and basic goods. In addition, draconian price and currency controls are fueling hoarding and speculation, only exacerbating the country’s rampant inflation, which the IMF expects will hit 500 percent this year. The results are seen in empty shelves, angry lines, and worse.

In recent days, wide-spread looting has broken out and at least four people have been killed. In the town of Cumaná, dozens of stores were ransacked before police moved in. Local authorities said more than 400 people had been detained. Also this week, The Associated Press reported a shootout at a dairy factory as armed men tried to steal milk.

“We’ve gone from spontaneous looting that happened when a truck crashed and people took food, to organized looting,” Roberto Briceño-Leon, the director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, said in a statement. “We’re in a situation of hunger and poverty. Never in my 47 years working as a sociologist in the poorer zones of Caracas and in rural areas have I ever seen anything similar.”

Statistics are hard to come by (the government quit putting out its monthly scarcity index in 2013), but an April poll by DatinCorp found only 54 percent said they were eating three meals a day. And anecdotal evidence paints a grim picture. Omar Guaramato, a regional congressman, said this week that half of the school children in Venezuela’s largest state, Miranda, weren’t attending class due to lack of food.

Dick Guanique, a labor organizer in Caracas, said his wife woke up at 4 a.m. on Wednesday — her government-designated shopping day — to wait in a line for groceries. The only items she had to show for her effort were two packages of corn flour and 250 grams of margarine.

But she was one of the lucky ones.

“I know a lot of people who have waited all night to get into a grocery store and then the delivery trucks never arrive,” Guanique said. “There have been other times in Venezuela where we’ve gone hungry, but we’ve never seen anything this widespread.”

David Smilde, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America who lives in Caracas, said he’s noticed a change for the worse recently.

“We’ve had looting and huge lines for the last year and a half, but in the last six weeks we’ve had people protesting for food,” he said. “We are at a new stage, and the nature of the protests suggests we’re in a very combustible situation.”

Shortage Blame

If getting food on the table has become a matter of national security, how to achieve that is a matter of national debate.

Maduro and his socialist administration routinely blame the shortages on the opposition and a shadowy international cabal. In his telling, opponents are using the hunger as a lever to topple him. The government has declared a state of emergency, is using armed security and neighborhood networks to distribute food, and is encouraging urbanites to start their own gardens. Even so, officials have refused to allow humanitarian aid —including much needed medicine — to be brought in.

Many in the opposition blame the problems on government policies that have turned the oil rich nation into the region’s basket-case. They believe the only solution is a full-scale housecleaning, starting with Maduro.

Presidential Recall

Hundreds of thousands of people this week, like Pineda, went to the polls for the second time in recent months to reaffirm their desire for a recall. The opposition says it has surpassed the 200,000 signatures needed to complete this phase, which ends Friday. In theory, the National Electoral Council will then have until July 29 to green-light the next stage, which will require the opposition to collect 3.9 million signatures in just three days to trigger a recall vote.

Organizers say they’ve faced government obstruction, ranging from roadblocks to arbitrary poll closings, during the process. It’s in the government’s interest to drag its feet as long as possible. If the recall happens before Jan. 10 then it would trigger new elections, which the administration would likely lose. If it happens after that date, Maduro’s handpicked vice president would finish out Maduro’s term through 2019.

Shannon’s visit and the OAS meetings were, in part, an effort to ensure the recall happens this year. The officials also are trying to ramp up a new round of talks, force the government to acknowledge the opposition-controlled National Assembly and free political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Leopoldo López.

“The government is not willing to entertain any of these concessions, as they simply have too much to lose,” the U.S.-based Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting company, predicted in a letter to clients. The administration “is united in its desire to avoid holding a recall vote this year, since they would almost certainly lose new elections. Likewise, the government is highly unlikely to free political prisoners that would be strong opposition candidates or legitimize a national assembly that could work to also reduce their grip on power.”

In that sense, many fear that all the diplomatic maneuvering may just give the administration more time to dig in and deflect the recall.

Pineda said he fears the time for talking has come and gone, as life in Barinas and other parts of the country has become untenable. His brother had to suspend his chemotherapy treatment because of lack of medicine, his neighbor removes his car battery every night so it doesn’t get stolen, and his daughters have moved abroad.

“Many of the young people and professionals have left the country. They don’t have the will to fight it out here,” he said. As far as he’s concerned, the referendum may be the country’s, and his, best chance.

“I don’t want to have to leave Venezuela,” he said.