This is my first posting not about either Europe, the EU or Brexit. This article appeared in The Times on 14 June 2016 and illustrates what so often happens where powerful governments and bureaucrats seek to control every aspect of their people’s lives. You may think the implied comparison with the EU is far-fetched, in which case I would urge you to consider the fall-out from the introduction of the Euro common currency in southern Europe; especially in Spain and Greece.
Hungry pupils abandon school to search for food
Plummeting oil prices have left Venezuela on the brink of collapse
James Hider, Caracas
June 14 2016, 12:01am,
Security forces take up position at a Caracas shop before it opens to the masses
Although the summer holidays have not yet started, the school in the slums of western Caracas is almost empty. With Venezuelans scrabbling for food in an imploding economy, three quarters of the pupils regularly skip classes; too hungry to concentrate, or forced by their parents to queue all day at the near-empty shops.
“We are in a critical situation right now because of the economic situation,” said Belkis Guzman, educational co-ordinator for the 700 pupils at the San José Obrero secondary school, in the vast slum of Antimano. In one of her classes only four out of 34 students ever show up these days.
The socialist government has long based its massive welfare handouts to the poor on its huge oil reserves, and failed to diversify its economy. When global oil prices crashed last year, the command economy plunged into a nosedive, leaving the country unable to pay for the many goods it imports, and racked by chronic shortages and daily riots. “Lack of food is the main cause,” Ms Guzman said.
Sometimes parents send the children to queue at shops on days when their identity cards allow them to buy their allotted food rations. With so many people unemployed, most parents cannot afford to buy shoes for their children, or soap to wash school uniforms. There is no money for a snack at school, or for the bus to get to classes. Sometimes there is no water for a shower.
Ms Guzman first noticed a drastic drop in attendance last October, when 60 per cent of children began skipping classes regularly. “We phoned the children and many of them said they were depressed and started crying.”
Some of the older pupils are being pulled out of school to find work to keep their families afloat. Among those who do attend “four or five are sent home each day because they complain of stomach cramps. They say, ‘we didn’t eat last night and didn’t have breakfast today’. Some of them faint with hunger,” she said.
Ms Guzman’s school receives some funding from a private religious foundation, so her pupils fare better than those at the schools backed only by the state.
She found a way to offer the children a snack in the course of the day in an effort to lure them back, but even so, absenteeism is running at an average of 73 per cent. “We are preparing for the situation to get worse than it is now,” she said. “If absenteeism is at 73 per cent at the end of this year, imagine what it will be like next year.”
Among those pupils who do manage to make it to the classroom, many are reluctant to leave at the end of the day, she said. Poverty, hunger and widespread unemployment have led to tensions at home and an increase in domestic violence that mirrors the rising violence of food riots and looting across the country.
Venezuela has the highest murder rate in the world at 120 per 100,000 people — as well as the highest inflation rate, unofficially reckoned to be 700 per cent.
Having failed to invest in domestic production, the country depends on imports, which are paid for by its oil wealth which has dried up in the face of the deepest downturn in the global oil industry since the 1990s. The economy is expected to shrink by 8 per cent this year and the government has been selling off gold reserves and racking up massive debts to China and other creditors as it tries to keep the nation afloat.
With food and medicine, and even items such as toilet paper, running out, thousands of people rush to shops when word spreads of deliveries being made.
For many that means arriving in the dead of the night and waiting until late afternoon to have any chance of securing the basic essentials — and when the meagre supplies run out and the shops close, there is anger, soon followed by violence.
Police are quick to fire tear gas at any protesters, ignoring their chants of “we are hungry!” One woman was shot dead last week in a food riot in the west of the country.
Social media users have shared video footage of food lorries being looted in the countryside, with police appearing to drive by without intervening.
Many Venezuelans have followed President Maduro’s advice to start raising chickens and growing vegetables at home. Carmen Blanco, 64, bought her first rooster and hen in January; now she has two dozen birds crowding into a small enclosure in her yard — but the rampant inflation has made it hard to get chicken feed.
“Back then, feed was 40 bolivars a kilo, now it’s 800,” said Mrs Blanco, who lives with her three sons and their families. She sells most of the chickens she raises, using some of the cash to buy more chicken feed, and getting her protein from the eggs.
Some of the birds are bartered for cornmeal or oil.
Mrs Blanco needs money for her blood-pressure medicine, although it is becoming ever harder to find as pharmacies across the country run out of medical supplies.
Going shopping can be a harrowing experience. “People in the slums are getting very aggressive, they are talking about looting. Local shops have to close when the food from the government doesn’t arrive,” Mrs Blanco said.
Corn and bean fields are popping up on the steep slopes above the Antimano slum, but the new urban farmers say they have no money for fertiliser or pesticide, leaving the crops at the mercy of poor soil and blight.
President Maduro recently introduced a new distribution system, known by its Spanish acronym, Clap, that is meant to send food directly to local communities, bypassing the huge queues that have come to symbolise his three years in power.
It has collapsed already. The opposition voiced fears that it could be used to withhold food in areas that have stood up against the socialist government.
Reinforcing those fears, Erika Farías, governor of the western state of Cojedes, recently said that the system would not be for “escualidos” — a term used by the late Hugo Chávez for the opposition, and meaning, ironically, “the emaciated ones”.