Monday, 11 March 2013

Hugo Chavez and the Right to Food in Venezuela

Hugo Chavez and the Right to Food in Venezuela
Hugo Chavez, Getty Images, retrieved from
Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela since 1999, died on March 5, 2013. I’ve been reading about Chávez lately as part of my big research project on state food crimes. I was interested in him because Chávez seemed to be a political leader who really cared about the poor, yet by the time of his death he was overseeing policies that meant the poor were becoming worse off.
In 2003 Chávez started “missions” (misiones) to improve the health, education, and nutritional status of Venezuela’s poor. He established a network of state-owned stores (Mercals) where people could buy food at subsidized prices, often as low as 40 per cent of the market price; by 2007 about nine million people out of a total population of 28 million shopped at the Mercals. He also instituted a system of community kitchens where local women cooked meals for those who couldn’t cook for themselves, and he vastly expanded the program of school meals, eventually providing breakfast, lunch and snacks for almost four million children. He funded all these programs with Venezuela’s vast oil wealth.
All these sound like wonderful policies, and in fact, World Bank data show that the health of Venezuelans improved under Chávez’s rule. Inequality was also reduced. The poor showed their appreciation by re-electing Chávez several times, most recently in autumn 2012- or at least, so we think. Venezuela’s more recent elections were “free, but not fair”. Chávez manipulated the elections by hogging air time and denying his opponents access to the media; by threatening to fire public sector workers who didn’t vote for him; and by controlling the electoral commission.  So it’s not altogether sure that the poor, as a group, supported him. Some didn’t, because Chávez tended to hand out goodies such as housing to his supporters. Nevertheless, the missions he started were so popular that the opposition had to assure the people that it would continue them once in power, only more efficiently.
By the time Chávez died, there were severe food shortages in Venezuela.  In order to provide enough cheap food, Chávez imposed price controls on food producers, distributors and retailers. These controls meant that many people were expected to produce and sell food below the costs of production.  Chávez also threatened to imprison private food producers and retailers who sold food above the control price. As a result, many farmers, ranchers, importers of food, and retailers simply went out of business,
Add to this Chávez’s habit of nationalizing farms and ranches.  The nationalized farms and ranches did not produce as much food as the privately-owned ones had done. Chávez tried to promote more independent peasant production by redistributing nationalized land to ordinary Venezuelan citizens, but he didn’t make sure that these new peasant farmers had the supports they needed, such as agricultural credits.
Chávez ran these missions on his own: they weren’t subjected to the normal administrative oversight of government departments. He used oil wealth from Venezuela’s national oil industry, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) to finance them. The result was the PDVSA did not have enough resources for reinvestment and maintenance, and oil production declined. So Venezuela had to go into more and more debt to import more and more food.
By the time of Chávez’s death, severe shortages compromised the right to food in Venezuela. People had to line up for hours, or go from one Mercal to another, to find the inexpensive food they needed. Meanwhile, wealthier people could buy uncontrolled food products, such as cheese instead of milk, although in the last year of his rule Chávez imposed controls on hundreds more food items.
Plus, the economy was in such bad shape, with heavy borrowing and less and less oil produced, that Venezuelans’ long-run food security was also undermined: there was less money to import the food that Venezuelans were no longer producing. There will be an election in Venezuela for a new president in April 2013. Unless the new president makes the missions more efficient, lets government ministries oversee them, and rectifies the problems of under-performing nationalized industries, food shortages are likely to continue. And unless the managers of the PDVSA are allowed to do their job efficiently and retain money for reinvestment and repairs, there will be less oil to buy food.
Hugo Chávez improved Venezuelans’ right to food in the short run, but at the price of long-run food security.  To make sure that citizens’ basic needs are fulfilled, you can’t just redistribute resources, you have to have an efficient economy that will ensure the resources are always there.
If you’d like to read my (draft) chapter on Chávez and the right to food, email me at and I will send it to you.

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