The BBC isn’t kidding: the food crisis really is a hunger crisis in Venezuela now. Here in Guayana, we’re closer to Brazil than to Colombia. (It’s still a 13-hour trip, though — Bolívar state really is big.) Things have reached a point, though, where people with cars have started to taking the long trip to the border. They’re not interested in samba or the Olympics, they’re looking for food.
Even here in Puerto Ordaz, Brazilian products have started to turn up on store shelves. They’re more expensive than the price-controlled products but still cheaper than going with a bachaquero.
One of my dad’s colleagues recently made the trip, in a crowded bus that rode all night and did not stop once, not even for bathroom breaks.
Not too long ago Santa Elena de Uairén was the last stop for tourists before they continued their quest to see the tallest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls, or climb the Roraima tepuy. Now it is the last stop for Venezuelans searching for food.
The buses don’t cross to Brazil, so he had to walk to Pacaraima, where he bought what he needed -sugar, pasta and rice- then walked back and hopped into the bus.
Once he was back in the office (of course he had to ask for a day off), he offered my dad some of his treasure, and so, we had the opportunity to buy 2 kg. of Brazilian sugar (Açúcar Cristal Q Sabor).
So far, we had been making do with papelón, but now that its price had gone through the roof, we felt tempted to accept the offer and buy the very expensive sugar.
For a while we were ecstatic that we’d get to sweeten our coffee again. It’s so sad how any sense of normalcy can bring so much joy.
Then a friend of the family told us he’d heard the Brazilian sugar going around had bits of iron filings in it. Jokingly we took out a magnet and went through it. To our shock, we saw little, previously invisible bits of metal moving toward the magnet. We’ve heard about food being “rich in iron” but this is ridiculous.
Adulterated Brazilian products can serve as a stop-gap, an emergency measure when you just can’t find something you need. But nobody can afford to feed a family via the border: the bulk of what you eat still has to come from the local market, and in the local market there’s nothing.
Earlier this month, the infamous CLAPs bag came to our neighborhood.
We don’t live in the kind of place you’re probably picturing when you think of CLAPs. When my parents first moved here, thirty years ago, Puerto Ordaz was the jewel in Venezuela’s crown and our middle-class neighborhood was the tropical version of the American ‘house with a white picket fence’ ideal. Over the course of the years, the picket fences became brick walls as tall as the houses, and finally, other type of fences (whether electric or made with broken bottles) appeared over the walls as well.
It took a lot of meetings and tons of copies of the cédulas of everybody in the house for the CLAP to arrive. Apparently, they kept ‘losing’ the copies.
However, many are speculating the copies are being registered as ‘different families’ so they can get access to additional bags. Four people live at my house, so with four different cédulas being registered as four different families, the ‘ID collector’ could keep three extra bags for himself.
Still, nobody has dared to speak up their concerns to the Consejo Comunal.
One day as we were eating lunch a member of the communal council came asking for Bs. 3,000 in cash, the grocery bag’s price, as we found out, though we’d never heard that before in the many meetings about them. The guy probably was not yet 40, but looked much older because of his weather-beaten skin.
He was polite but very firm: the groceries had to be paid in less than two hours, no concessions. We freaked out because we didn’t have the money right then.
Luckily, a caraqueña aunt lent it to us, after we promised to pay her back as soon as we can.
She’s living through her own drama; the apartment she bought seven years ago was finally ready last month after any number of problems created by construction materials shortages. You get a sense for what inflation’s been like when you realize the security door to each apartment costs as twice as much as the whole apartment did back in 2009.
Sadly, other neighbors weren’t as fortunate as us and lost their chance for groceries, after such a time-consuming process.
The next day the communal council was supposed to go door to door distributing the groceries. They made all the neighbors —well, all the ones who had paid— gather out on the street.
Council-members came with a photographer and a few National Guards. Interestingly, they only took pictures of my father and our pretty 19-year-old neighbor, the only two blonde, light-eyed people on our block. They were the only ones who were given their groceries in front of their houses. They were instructed to “look happy” as the guards mimicked handing the groceries to them.
Panem et circenses.
Everyone else was instructed to go collect their bags at the seat of the communal council. Everybody was angry and frustrated, but nobody said anything out of fear. It had taken too long to get the groceries and shortages are at their peak. We all need the few food products the bag can offer.
And just like that, feeling defeated they walked under the sun a good few blocks to get their food. The ordeal took all afternoon, and the bag only contained 2 kg. of rice, 2 kg. of black beans, 3 litres of oil and 2 kg. of cornflour.
While the others walked, the GNB had still not handed my neighbor her bag. At a certain point two guards grabbed her by the waist. They wanted to keep taking more pictures.
“Will you give me another bag?” she asked.
When they said no, she snatched her bag from the Guardia’s hand and screamed “THEN NO MORE PICTURES FOR YOU!”, ran into her house, and slammed the door behind her.