Oil Collapse Leads to Food Lines, Blackouts and Rising Tension

Under other circumstances, Jonny Lopez might have been happy that he was losing weight. “I’ve been running around the city so much, looking for food, that I’ve lost 20 pounds,” said the father of two.

Standing in line has become a routine as he tries to buy food for his family and supply a fast-food stand that he runs in their neighborhood. “The longest line was 11 hours once, to buy a package of cornmeal, a little milk, rice and meat,” he said, adding that the money he and his wife earn does not cover necessities. “The money we used to spend on a week’s groceries now buys just a small bag of things,” Lopez said. “The Venezuelan people are dying of hunger.”

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The downturn in global oil prices in 2015 sent Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy into free fall, immersing the country in an unprecedented crisis marked by shortages of food and medicine and now growing social unrest. Embattled President Nicolás Maduro has blocked opposition efforts to force a recall election and has called out the military to help maintain control.

Barquisimeto, the city where Lopez and his wife, Aura Gallardo, live with their two daughters, Aurimar, 13, and Marijose, 3, is the fourth-largest in Venezuela. In their parish and within their own families, they feel the sharp polarization between Chavistas—Maduro supporters who take their name from former President Hugo Chavez—and opponents of the government.

“We never talk about politics in the parish because there are people on both sides, and I have seen families destroyed by the conflict,” said Gallardo. She and Lopez said they are disillusioned with the government but have little enthusiasm for the political opposition, which claims to have collected more than a million signatures to recall Maduro. 

Fear is palpable everywhere.

Besides hunger, violence has increased throughout the country, especially in her family’s neighborhood.

“In the Venezuelan Caritas offices, we survive on what the faithful and some companies donate, but we’re receiving almost nothing now,” said Yaneth Marquez, coordinator of Caritas Venezuela. “We’ve had to cut our nutrition and health care programs in half.”

She said she hopes the government will grant the Venezuelan bishops’ request to allow the church to bring donations of food and medicine into the country. So far, however, there has been no response.

Other necessities are also scarce. Venezuelans must wait in long lines to buy the few staples available. Throughout Venezuela, businesses are empty and many stores in shopping centers have closed. There is a lack of health care supplies, even in hospitals, and an energy crisis is causing rolling blackouts. Pharmacies sell soft drinks and snacks instead of medicines, and in cities in the interior of the country, electricity is cut off for four hours a day.

There is talk that the Vatican could mediate between the government and the opposition. In early May, Pope Francis publicly expressed his concern about the situation in Venezuela and sent a personal letter to Maduro. When a top Vatican official was scheduled to visit Venezuela for the ordination of a priest set to become the Vatican nuncio to Congo, rumors grew that the Vatican was taking on the role of mediator, even though the Vatican denied it. In the end, though, the scheduled trip of Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican secretary for relations with states, was canceled “for reasons not depending on the Holy See.”

Meanwhile, as Lopez scrounges for food for his family and his corner stand, he fears the worst.

“For the past 15 years,” he said, “I’ve been afraid that we would face armed social upheaval.”

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