The Day the CLAP Bag Came to my Neighborhood

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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.

IronUsing the magnet trick, we ‘cleaned’ the sugar as best we could. There was never any question of throwing it away: it’s sugar, after all. You don’t just throw out something that precious.

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.

19 COMMENTS

  1. un interesante testimonio… muy acertado lo del Panem et circenses… todo esto en definitiva es la versión tropical y muy particular del pan y circo romano…

  2. Great addition to CC’s collection of real live chronicles of what it means to live in todays surreal disaster that is Venezuela ( very well written too) ,

    Got interested on the presence of iron in the Brazilian sugar and searching the internet found quite a few articles on how Brazil is attempting to fight an endemic iron deficiency in the blood of its population by inserting some kind of iron compound in the sugar people use in their food . Heres a sample of what I found : http://www.scielo.org.ve/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0004-06222001000500011:

    Not sure the article explains the iron which the article mentions as included in the Brazilian sugar but there must be an explanation to this report !!

    • El hierro que se menciona en este post y el de ese artículo de scielo.org son diferentes. Ahí se dice que en Brasil se usó “iron tris-glycinate chelate as the source of iron”, es decir, hierro unido a aminoácidos para que pueda ser asimilado por el organismo. El proceso es bastante complicado pero aquí lo explican razonablemente bien http://www.lifezone.com/2013/02/amino-acid-chelated-iron/ ). Supongo que ese hierro en el azúcar proviene de un mal procesamiento de la materia prima o quien sabe de qué otra fuente.

      Nunca había oído hablar de hacer pasar el azúcar por un imán para quitarle el hierro pero está claro que en Venezuela hoy en día se puede ver todo tipo de cosas y ya no me sorprendo de nada. Ramón Pinango cuenta por ejemplo en una entrevista que “estando en cola, una señora vio palomas picando en el asfalto y brincó para atrapar una, la metió en su bolsa y dijo: “¡Hoy como carne!”” mientras en los periódicos se cuenta que “Un venezolano debe trabajar 9 días para comprar un desodorante”… puro surrealismo absurdo que, lamentablemente, no forma parte de una novela de ficción sino que es la realidad estresante y penosa que tienen que sufrir millones de venezolanos.

      • Rafael is right. This was an issue in Brazil in 2011, and it’s a problem, it may not cause harm, but it’s definitely not beneficial for people.

        On this site specialized in juridical matters, there’s an explanation from the health department of a state (Minas Gerais) explaining what may be the reason for that:

        http://amp-mg.jusbrasil.com.br/noticias/2780235/mp-e-saude-divulgam-laudos-que-confirmam-ferro-no-acucar

        “Em nota, a SES explica que a ocorrência de ferro pode ser uma falha no controle de produção. Na etapa seguinte à evaporação do caldo de cana, o açúcar passar por tubos que podem desprender material ferroso, podendo pedaços serem incorporados ao açúcar cristal. As partículas são chamadas de ponto preto e devem ser eliminadas por métodos que permitam sua retirada. Para monitorar o controle de qualidade das linhas de produção, a Diretoria de Vigilância de Alimentos determinou que sejam feitas inspeções nas duas usinas de açúcar cristal localizadas em Minas.”

        Brief translation: problem in the manufacturing process, some tubes releasing iron on the product.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided sending these products to remote places far from the big centers after that, to the poorest and isolated states like Roraima, where rule of law is nearly non-existent.

        But in order to denounce that company, “Q-Sabor”, the CNPJ number on the pack is required, if there’s not even a CNPJ number on the pack, then it’s even a bigger scam than previously thought.

        • un buen aporte, Marc… es interesante ver cómo gracias a internet y colaborando entre nosotros podemos aclarar todo este asunto aunque vivamos en diferentes partes del mundo…

        • Dumping inferior products in Venezuela is nothing new. For years, Venezuela has been receiving the factory rejects from everywhere as well as goods with expired shelf lives. Consumers in Venezuela have no choice or clout in the matter.

          • Nor have the consumers in Pacaraima. I doubt that Maduro and his friends eat that sugar.

            This is not about corrupt companies dumping their products where they think that they won’t get caught. In the case above, dumping factory rejects in Roraima, which is a Brazilian state.

            Again, to the author of the article, what is the CNPJ number on that sugar pack?

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CNPJ

  3. “Still, nobody has dared to speak up their concerns to the Consejo Comunal.”

    Only 2 reasons I can think of: “el pueblo”, somehow, still has money – no one seems to make $12/month minimum salary” That doesn’t buy you 1 breakfast and 1 lunch. Please do the math for me..

    They are obviously afraid to protest. There’s repression, guardia nazional. It’s a disguised neo-dictatorship in Venezuela. If you hit the streets, it can get nasty, and you might end up in jail, like Leopoldo and many others.

    ‘todo esto en definitiva es la versión tropical y muy particular del pan y circo romano…”

    Exactamente! El regimen autoritario, que se da la gran vida de lujos, comidas, vinos y mujeres – Los Chavistas – crean un circo moderno a traves de los medios de comunicacion que controlan, y sus payasos, Maduro, Cabello, Aristobulo (nombre tipico de gran payaso) Delcy, etc.

    Hay novelas en la TV, circo todos los dias, Mientras le prometen al “pueblo” bastantes hallacas pa’ diciembre.. pan y circo.. circo y pan, clasico.

    • ” “el pueblo”, somehow, still has money ”

      Bolivars are worthless since the second middle of 2012 and you know that, stop claiming the same stupid chavista excuse of “the people has lots of money, that’s why they buy a lot, because they are not poor anymore”

      “no one seems to make $12/month minimum salary” That doesn’t buy you 1 breakfast and 1 lunch. Please do the math for me..”

      Yes, there IS people making that miserable income as much as you don’t want to admit it, they have to risk getting stabbed, shot and worse in lines made from the previous day to have a chance to buy anything, or get coerced into becoming part of this disgusting, stomach-churning, nausea-inducing circus to masturbate the chavistas’ egos.

  4. Bravo Victoria, excellent post! Although it’s a bit heartbreaking.

    Last week I visited my best friend’s family in Puerto La Cruz. I arrived there around 9pm; shortly after, a neighbor called through the window lo let us know that the CLAP bags had arrived. Like in your story, they had to pay 3.000 bolos in advance, in their case at 11am. They were told that the bags would arrive at 2pm, and the communal council stretched it for the whole day, each hour saying ‘almost there’. The bag had 2 or 3 Kgs of powdered milk, 2 Kg rice, 1 Kg black beans and 1 Kg lentils. The family told me that this was just the second CLAP bag they received ever, and they reiterated the strange request for several copies of the ID to kickstart the process.

  5. Thinking abstractly Venezuela’s experiment with Chavismo seems like a scene out of Animal Farm by George Orwell, a caricature of the end result of communalism or socialism. But that abstract thinking doesnt soften the hell inside Venezuelans must feel.actually living on the Farm. The Community Council, the photographer and the eager supplicants forced to receive the gift of food in the street from the party officials, food they did not get if they lacked the money. What a nightmare. Raise your hand if you want a government that controls everything such that it controls your food allowance.

  6. Victoria, thanks very much for this account from one of Venezuela’s largest but incredibly forgotten cities! (you know how Caraquenos are!)
    I wonder if the use of iron may also have to do with increasing the weight of the stuff they are selling. I also wonder whether they are putting other substances there. Health controls are not precisely good in Latin America.
    Be well!

  7. I am curious. How do the national guard members eat? How do they feed their families? If everyone is VZ is standing in line for food and not working, how do these guards avoid that?

    Is the military getting priority for food and goods? And if so, is even the lowest rank enlisted man being taking care of, including his family? That way he doesn’t have to worry about finding food and can focus on enforcing the crazy rules on the public.

    • Well, firstly, the GNB soldiers guarding the food, of course, grab some bags for themselves. Who wouldn’t? However, there are reports that many in the armed forces are on skimpy rations. Some soldiers in a remote posting were recently prosecuted for stealing goats from a local farmer. Their excuse? “We were hungry.”

  8. Victoria, I couldn’t help but feel very sad for you (and for me, because I live here too, in Valencia, where our people suffer and have to stand in line everyday to get a few groceries after 6-8 hours of hell, and now it’s harder because each neighborhood has made census & IDs for neighbors and you can only buy in 2-3 shops near home) and things there in Guayana. The situation you described in your article is accurate and so real and I think it is important that venezuelans (like you), dare to share the facts, to tell people abroad how bad things have gone here…
    In attention to Mr. Rod said about how these people (public forces) could get their food, I think they have their own supplies (or at least they ought to, it’s a mistery to me), but I also have my own point of view of things that can happen, based in certain situation valencianos had to witness a few months ago, and I’d like to share with you. Here the link: http://sumarium.com/la-pelea-entre-una-policia-y-una-consumidora-por-comida/

    Finalmente, una sugerencia (no aplicable al 100% de los casos) de producto “sustituto” al azúcar o papelón: me han recomendado el jarabe de goma (aquí en Valencia no se consigue tampoco) pero yo personalmente he atesorado un par de latas de leche condensada, para endulzar ciertas comidas y bebidas.

    Good luck and please, keep doing things like Caracas Chronicles, we need it :).

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