Photo: Cristian Hernández

Freedom of Choice Starts at the Stomach

We’re going to see new debates around holding more elections and rebuilding political rights this year, but most Venezuelans are stuck with a more elemental problem: how to not depend on the regime to eat

While discussions over the designation of an impartial and politically balanced National Electoral Council board of authorities happen within the Venezuelan public sphere, the urgent need for actual democratic institutions is still very much there, in ways that aren’t thoroughly discussed, particularly for something so pivotal to help Venezuelans live in a democracy.

Consider Ingrid’s story, one of millions of examples. The last time Ingrid received her government food box was in the middle of the night, and she depends on these subsidies to eat. “You make the payment, but the box arrives in around a month,” says Ingrid, a resident of La Cota 905, one of the most violent slums in Caracas. 

“Here in my community, there’s no other help, no school kitchens for the children. Before all of this, you could go to a supermarket and buy whatever you wanted. Now we’re forced to get what the government sends us.” 

Like Ingrid, about a third of Venezuelans are in moderate or severe food insecurity, according to a UN World Food Programme study conducted in 2019. The pandemic has exacerbated this dire situation, leaving many citizens on the edge of starvation, and yet the government’s subsidy programs fail to address these urgent social needs. Instead, they create propaganda and enhance dependency of the poorest on the State.

In 2020, barely 38% of all Venezuelan households reported receiving the box from the government’s CLAP food program on a monthly basis. Many believe that the missing boxes are proof that interests in alleviating hunger answer to political motivations and clientelism, as Arcangel, a middle-aged man who lives in La Vega, Caracas, points out: “It really is political… you need to be a true revolutionary if you want to be helped.”

Any debate around the conditions for elections must take into account this parallel political machinery that’s embedded in the creation and implementation of social policies, the control of the population through its stomach. 

The urgent need for impartial elections ought to look for small “d” democracy conditions, focusing more on how Venezuelans are living and the dynamics around surviving in the current context, considering the dependence on inefficient government subsidies.

A Privilege for Full Stomachs

The oil bonanza allowed Chávez’s governments to create an entire parallel structure of special funds free from institutional accountability. One of the social programs, Misión Mercal, started in 2003, as a program to sell subsidized food and produce. In 2016, when Maduro was organizing his rule amid economic collapse, Mercal evolved into the CLAP scheme. 

Venezuelan agriculture was going under. There’s been a 40% to 60% contraction of crop production (rice and wheat) since 2016, and a 70% drop of food imports between 2014 and 2016. Recently, the Confederation of Associations of Agricultural Producers of Venezuela (FEDEAGRO) reported that national food production only supplies around 15% of what’s being consumed, down from 30% in 2017. In their July 2020 report, FEDEAGRO signaled that national production was having what was probably the worst year in recent memory, dropping to levels similar to those in the 1950s. In addition, due to the fuel shortage, farmers have let produce rot or given it away at discount prices to their neighbors. 

All this underlines the government’s inability to create a sustainable system to feed Venezuelan citizens, leaving just a privileged few who can keep themselves out of poverty, and can pay whatever is needed for both food or gasoline. 

The CLAP food program hasn’t reported any official figures on its impact or outcomes since its creation in 2016. There’s a whole set of social policies aimed to prevent malnourishment and feed the hungry, but they’re just a narrative to gain political support and international legitimacy. So the actual capacity of Venezuelans to choose other options to eat outside of the government’s rules is minimized.

Any debate around the conditions for elections must take into account this parallel political machinery that’s embedded in the creation and implementation of social policies, the control of the population through its stomach, because the institutions of our representative democratic system should be recovered, yes, but chavismo has caused new social dynamics to develop during these last years. 

And they’re tailor-made to tip the balance in its favor.

Mikhael G. Iglesias L

Expert in Latin America and the Caribbean Affairs with a focus on at-risk populations and comprehensive policy implementations. Former Professor and Researcher at Universidad Catolica Andres Bello (Venezuela) with a Master's degree from New York University. Avid runner and writer.