In Venezuela, Maduro regime uses hunger to get votes

Vote for an authoritarian regime or go to bed hungry. It is a dire choice facing millions of Venezuelans living through the economic and political crisis in their once-prosperous country.

The corruption and mismanagement of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime have fueled food shortages, hyperinflation and the collapse of the public health sector. As a result, the Venezuelan people face grave consequences.

Maduro’s authoritarian government requires many local supermarkets to fix prices below vendors’ costs, which doesn’t reflect market value and makes it impossible for grocers to make money. Venezuelan supermarkets also are unable to convert currency to import food products. The result: Supermarket shelves remain empty. Shoppers can stand in line for an entire day looking for food and medicine across the capital, Caracas.

But the regime has a weapon ahead of scheduled May 20 national elections: a handout of rice, pasta and canned goods that is now the main source of sustenance for 15 percent of the population, according to Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

The food package is distributed to those who carry a new ruling party card, called the Fatherland Card, which also is used to register their vote. Using these cards, the government tracks who votes for the ruling Socialist Party and rewards them with food boxes.

The Maduro regime, responsible for creating this humanitarian crisis, is expected to use these food handouts and measles vaccine to purchase support in the upcoming presidential elections.

This will not be the first time the regime has tied much-needed basic benefits to politics.

Katerina Noriega, a street vendor in Santa Rita, told the Wall Street Journal that she was offered about a kilogram of rice and beans, or about 10 days’ worth of wages, for voting in the December 2017 municipal elections in Venezuela.

“They bought our votes,” Noriega said. She said she voted for the government candidate because she felt like she had to. “I did it because of our difficult situation.”

During recent elections, government supporters reportedly used the Fatherland Cards to track down people who hadn’t voted and remind them of their government benefits. The implication was clear: Vote or lose basic necessities. Areas that did not support the government reportedly saw their food benefits reduced.

A man-made crisis

Contents of a box of food sitting on a table (© Marco Bello/Reuters)
During a hunger crisis, the Venezuelan government often manipulates the distribution of food boxes for political purposes. (© Marco Bello/Reuters)

Hunger, malnutrition and diseases have increased at alarming rates in Venezuela. According to a 2017 Survey of Life Conditions conducted by three local universities, 9 out of 10 Venezuelans can’t afford to buy the food they need. As a result, more than 60 percent of the country reported going to bed hungry.

“We have dramatic reports of mothers who have to decide which child to feed proteins to on a given day and which one not,” said Marianella Herrera, a doctor and one of the researchers, in an interview with El País.

In spite of the hunger, Maduro has refused to acknowledge that there is a humanitarian crisis or accept international assistance. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the country in just the past several months.

“This crisis in Venezuela, which is now spilling into the broader region, is man-made,” said Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, on March 20 when he announced an initial, immediate donation of $2.5 million to Colombia to help Venezuelans crossing the border in search of food and medicine. An estimated 650,000 Venezuelans now live in Colombia, and an estimated 1.7 million more are expected to leave Venezuela in 2018.

Many are fleeing to border towns in Colombia and Brazil, challenging local social services. The USAID support follows $36.5 million that the U.S. has provided over the past two years to the regional operations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other international organizations to support vulnerable populations in the region, including Venezuelans.

The United States continues to assess the needs of Venezuelans, together with partner countries such as Colombia and Brazil, and continues to call on the Maduro regime to return to democracy and allow international humanitarian assistance to help the Venezuelan people.