CARACAS: Mayra de Ramos stood in line all day to buy two packs of corn flour and pasta, but the Venezuelan grandmother says it won’t be enough.
She lives with her three children and three young grandchildren in Catia, a downtrodden neighborhood in Caracas.
“My refrigerator is bare,” the 64-year-old pensioner says, showing its empty shelves. “We don’t eat three meals a day. We have breakfast late and lunch late and that’s it. There’s not enough milk. We give the kids ‘fororo’ (an inexpensive flour-based cereal) to get them to sleep.”
Her daughter was the one standing in line at the supermarket that day because the last number on her ID card was selected under the government’s rationing program.
Ramos went the day before.
“It was incredible,” she says. “I had to wait in line all day. Sometimes we came away empty-handed.”
Home to the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela has skidded into an economic catastrophe as global crude prices have collapsed.
The country that depends on oil for 96 percent of its trade revenues is running out of cash to import the food, medicine and other basic goods it buys abroad.
The crisis has caused severe shortages and hyperinflation forecast to hit 700 percent this year, threatening President Nicolas Maduro and the socialist economic model he inherited from his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.
Venezuelans line up at dawn or even overnight outside the nation’s supermarkets, guarded by heavily armed police to battle the growing problem of looting.
“My day-to-day is going out to stand in line, to see what I can find,” says Liliana Rojas, 44, a neighbor of Ramos’s whose family of eight includes four children. “We eat breakfast and skip lunch. If we have lunch, we don’t eat dinner so the flour lasts two days.”
Rosa Gomez, a 38-year-old housewife, makes her way home in the densely packed Petare neighborhood with two packs of corn flour, two chickens and three sticks of butter.
It’s getting dark, it’s raining and she’s visibly tired.
“I left home at 5 am,” she says. “I spent the whole day in line just to get this. We have to do it. If not, we don’t eat. I don’t have the money to buy on the black market.”
Maduro’s government has launched a crackdown on black-market sellers who buy up subsidized products and sell them at a mark-up.
They are called “bachaqueros,” for a species of large ant.
A pack of black-market flour costs more than 10 times the regulation price, Gomez says.
“Your salary’s just not enough,” she says. “If you buy on the black market, it disappears like water.”
To fight corruption at state-run supermarkets and hoarding by shoppers, the government has launched a distribution plan to pass out bags of subsidized food through so-called
Supply and Production Committees headed by community leaders.
The acronym in Spanish is CLAP.
“First come the CLAPs and then everyone else,” Maduro said Thursday. “That’s the order in line. All power to the CLAPs.”
Several protests have erupted in recent days when trucks loaded with food arrived at supermarkets only for police guarding the lines outside to commandeer the delivery for the CLAPs, according to witnesses.
And many Venezuelans complain those subsidized bags of rice, sugar, butter, oil and corn flour arrive only for a small portion of the population.
Even those who get the subsidized bags aren’t happy, saying they don’t last long.
“They give me this pathetic little bag from month to month,” Ramos says. “There are four or five products, and less every time.”
As she scrapes together the family’s meal, she ties a cloth around the mouth of her faucet and turns it on, filtering dirty water into a bottle.
She fills a few and puts them in the near-empty fridge.
“Water. That’s all there is,” she says, a resigned smile flickering across her lips.