Do you want to sign? Or do you want to eat?

An Universidad de Los Andes student finds out the hard way what it really means when the government treats food like a benefit.


D.M. was making some arepas at the shared kitchen in his Universidad de Los Andes dorm when the guy from the Centro de Estudiantes (Student Center) brought him the bad news.

Líder,” his friend says, “I heard the guys from the Communal Council brought a list up to the Centro de Estudiantes and, well…”

D.M. knew exactly where this was going.  He’s a card-carrying PSUV member who says he still has respect for Chávez, but D.M. parted ways with the government a long time ago. He’s so fed up, he actually signed the petition to have Nicolás Maduro recalled from office.

“They told Zea,” the Student Center president, “that people who signed won’t be able to shop at the PDVal any more.”

This was serious. As a student, money is tight, and the deeply discounted groceries on offer at the state-controlled PDVal shop his Consejo Comunal (Communal Council) runs are the reason D.M.’s able to stay in school.

As soon as I approached him, I could see it was true from his body language

Alarmed, D.M. decides to go ask Zea, the head Centro de Estudiantes about it. He couldn’t risk turning up to the PDVal and being denied at the cash register.

“As soon as I approached him, I could see it was true from his body language,” D.M. tells me.

Zea sympathized, but said he couldn’t do much.  “Orders from on high” (órdenes de arriba) were clear: recall signators “wouldn’t keep receiving the benefit.”

How can buying food the only way that’s legal be a “beneficio”!?

Astounded, I ask D.M.: the benefit?”

Mind you, it is illegal to sell food at any price other than the controlled price. How can buying food the only way that’s legal be a “beneficio”!?

“They see it that way, as though it was a benefit, ¡un privilegio!” he tells me, “that’s how they talk about it.”

Zea tells D.M. that he has to check the system because he shows up as having signed. But there was a “mitigating circumstance,” Zea said: his signature had not been validated by CNE. D.M. was not even allowed to put up his fingerprint to be validated.

Still, he was told he’d have to go to the local Mérida CNE to withdraw his signature. Levantar un acta, saying his signature had been faked, counterfeited. Only that way would he be allowed to buy food legally again.

“You have to understand, líder” Zea told him — they all call each other líder, as it turns out — “if the cédula numbers from the blacklist start showing up on the PDVal shoppers’ list, they might withdraw the benefit from the entire Consejo Comunal.Órdenes de arriba.

D.M. tells me he was conflictedon the following Monday morning as he went down to CNE to withdraw his signature.  

I could feel the government wanting to humiliate me, to put its boot on my neck.

“I felt a little bit dirty, but I knew I had no choice,” he says. His finances won’t work at all without ‘el beneficio’. D.M. was angry at both sides, “sobre todo a este maldito gobierno de mierda y estupido, granted, but also at the opposition: how could they let my signature become public like that?”

But the real anger is the other way: “I could feel the government wanting to humiliate me, to put its boot on my neck.”

That was his state of mind as he turned up at the CNE’s Merida office, only to be told he was too late. “The final day to withdraw signatures was last Friday.”

Consider for a second the Kafkaesque situation this leaves him in. He’s signed, but his signature wasn’t validated, so he can’t confirm it with his fingerprint and it won’t count towards the recall. But it does count for intimidation purposes…and because he missed the deadline, he also can’t withdraw it.

Una sancioncita ahí: two weeks off of the PDVal rolls, that’s it.

D.M. pleaded with Zea to work something out. Zea knew that what they were doing wasn’t right, but he couldn’t afford to pick a fight with the Consejo Comunal, which in turn couldn’t afford to pick a fight with los de arriba.

Who exactly “los de arriba” are remains hazy to all involved —someone in some sort of ministry, maybe?— but the certainty that they could not be antagonized was anything but murky.

In the end, the Consejo was indulgent, D.M. tells me. “Una sancioncita ahí: two weeks off of the PDVal rolls, that’s it.”

D.M. and his friends suspect the real reason everyone is on edge is that the government is short on food, so they’re actively looking for any excuse to strike a consejo comunal off the “beneficios” list. So many people signed in Merida’s student districts that some think the Consejo might be struck off anyway: collective punishment of a sort, but also as a way to economize food when there isn’t enough to go around.

I ask D.M. if he’d consider signing again at the 20% stage. He’s very clear, “there’s no way, and I don’t say it due to cowardice but because I have to keep a cool head and think not just about myself but about my family. With the products I buy I can help them a bit, but more than that, it lifts a huge weight off of my mom’s shoulder. It’d be a big source of worry for her and my whole family if I didn’t have access to these products.”

He pauses.

“Me dejaría mal.”