Being a Farmer During a Pandemic in a Collapsed Economy
Fuel shortage is one of the reasons COVID-19 will hit Venezuela hard, because it increases the already heavy food insecurity. In the countryside, what’s left of production is stopping.
Photo: AFP, retrieved.
Armando Chacín, president of FEDENAGA (National Federation of Stock Farmers), isn’t just worried about coronavirus; there’s very little fuel to sustain even the abysmal levels of food production and distribution we have today.
According to his sobering, and dare we say alarming facts, Venezuela produced only 40% of the beef and 35% of the milk needed for the entire country before the outbreak. 20 years ago, he says, those percentages were 97% for beef and 70% for milk.
Now, diesel fuel trucks are keeping the distribution barely alive, with most farmers conducting business over the phone and praying for the best. The president of FEDENAGA says that, since the quarantine was imposed, only between 17% to 20% of farmers have been able to visit their haciendas, most being unable to move.
Milk production, a year-long process, was interrupted too, and many farmers had to stop the machinery they use (which is, by the way, “more suited for museums than for actual labor”). This will certainly translate into shortages of milk in the upcoming days, and other industries in the food sector are sure to follow suit, meaning that we’ll see similar effects in dairy products, for example.
There’s very little fuel to sustain even the abysmal levels of food production and distribution we have today.
The thing here is, gas is indeed available, but on the black market and you need over $100 to fill the tank, at least in Maracaibo. Most farmers speak off the record about how the black market is controlled by the military, with requirements like an official “safe passage letter” to travel and find gasoline, a procedure so difficult and slow that it seems tailor-made for bribery.
And fuel is a commodity needed not just to get food on the shelves, but also so the average citizen can get to the stores, an ordeal that gets harder by the minute. In the mornings, you see more and more people walking instead of using their cars, which means they’re spending more time in the streets, mingling with each other—just the opposite of what’s advised during a pandemic. Wearing masks in Maracaibo’s heat and humidity renders them useless after a morning of errands.
Food prices are soaring too, because they’re not only dependent on the daily price of the dollar (skyrocketing as we speak), fuel availability factors in, sending our main economic feature, hyperinflation, into the stratosphere. This is bad news for most Venezuelans, who only make bolivars, and for the thousands used to getting some financial help from abroad, considering that these inputs have dwindled with the halted economies of the pandemic. Remittances were among the first fatalities.
The thing here is, gas is indeed available, but on the black market and you need over $100 to fill the tank, at least in Maracaibo.
The situation also seems like a gift from heaven to a regime that, because of corruption and ineptitude, hasn’t provided basic things to its people. The social distancing guidelines have allowed the regime to sweep under the rug its inability to provide, creating perfect excuses to shield its flaws and go for political repressive tactics that would have been harshly rejected by public opinion in the usual daily context. Indeed, while the Trump administration escalates pressure on Maduro’s regime, the arrests of several of Juan Guaidó’s collaborators have barely dented our newsfeed, let alone curfews and restrictions of mobility that suit a fuel shortage scenario just fine.
Most of the world has found a way to keep the essential engines running, including food distribution; Venezuela is barely doing so and, without gas, farmers have extreme difficulties producing and distributing what the nation needs, a task that barely worked before. Here, the main topic is not COVID-19; the course du jour is gas, as in “the lack thereof”.
Armando Chacín is worried, because the status quo is untenable and something’s gotta give. His tone, however, is surprisingly upbeat, even hopeful, and when I ask him for a final message to the authorities, he’s crystal clear:
“Let us do our jobs.”
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