The Politics of Food in Venezuela: Maduro, Military, and Malnutrition

The Politics of Food in Venezuela: Maduro, Military, and Malnutrition

‘’The build up of tensions in Venezuela has led the country to a breaking point: self-appointed interim president Guaidó has called for the military to defect and support him to topple the sitting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at the end of April. This decision is not free from risk, especially since Guaidó’s diplomatic immunity has been revoked by the Maduro regime. Though the decision and its stakes highlight the key player in Venezuelan society: the military.’’

by Marijn Pronk

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has put top military personnel in power positions of nationalized industries, such as oil, in order to secure his power. Hugo Chávez, the president that preceded Maduro, had the same tactic by appointing lawmakers in support of the regime in high political positions in the National Assembly as well as the Supreme Court [1]. It is indeed primarily support of the military, not the citizen’s support, that keeps Maduro in power [2]. Maduro has never been as charismatic and popular as his predecessor Chávez, and after the contested results of the election in January that granted Maduro another term his popularity among the Venezuelan population and other political parties in Venezuela collapsed in favour of President of the National Assembly of Venezuela Juan Guaidó [3].  

These political tactics caused the military to be rooted in politics and economics, thus making  senior military officers key players in Venezuelan society. While in any case this entrenchment is detrimental to democracy, Maduro’s decision in 2016 to make the military in charge of the distribution of food paints an obvious picture of the lengths the regime was having to go to to stay in power. In order to centralize power, food is used as a tool to keep top military personnel on Maduro’s side [4]. With the economy crippled and the enormous inflation, food has become a more powerful tool to

The politicisation of food is noticeable in the distribution of so-called CLAP packages, which are committees that distribute food locally, now under the supervision of the military. However, there is a disparity between the distribution of food; areas which overall support the Maduro regime receive more food packages compared to dissident areas which systematically get less packages [5]. In order to receive CLAP packages, the Maduro regime has installed a system of federally issued cards (Carnet de la Patria) that you need in order to access various social programs, including CLAP benefits [6]. Hence opposing the regime will be made harder, due to the population’s dependency on social programs and basic resources. These methods are typically associated with of autocratic rule in a country, e.g. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, which includes a strong governmental focus on centralised, industrial, economy. With these tactics, Maduro weaponizes social safety nets to centralise control.

The scarcity of resources in Venezuela has made food trade especially profitable, with corruption by military and non-military personnel in the food business surging. Certain members of so-called Colectivos (paramilitary groups that are supported by the Maduro regime), have already noted that the illegal trafficking of food and medicine have become more profitable than the drug trade, without carrying as much risk as the latter does [7].

Guaidó’s adamant pressure on the military to defect from Maduro’s side is a sign of their importance in the resistance movement, but the slowly growing number of military dissidents also show that the military personnel see that the situation cannot hold any longer. The ‘food business’ is profitable and grants a relatively stable influx of resources to military families. Deserting from this safety net means uncertainty and a possible chance of prosecution by the Maduro regime.

The above underlines the gravity of the decision to leave such a privileged situation. With the country in despair, the military personnel see that there is no ‘good’ option, neither staying on the side of Maduro nor defecting will guarantee long-term stability. Combined with an increasing diplomatic and economic pressure from outside, the world media watching every step, and  growing incidents of national protest, the powerful military leaders are feeling the country reaching a boiling point.

Since Guaidó admits he does not have enough military defectors to topple Maduro’s regime, he might be more inclined to ask for foreign military assistance [8]. If the international community wants to avoid military intervention, pressure points of the Venezuelan military need to be addressed. The majority of CLAP packages are imported from Mexico of which over 80% are being handled by the military. The pressure put on this program through the Mexican export of those packages to the military might be the final push the military needs to defect from Maduro if the guarantee of food is obstructed [6][9]. However, careful deliberation between international actors is necessary to start putting pressure on the CLAP program, which also supports the Venezuelan population.

The aforementioned trade-off, between risking personal security by defecting or remaining loyal in spite of domestic and international pressure, is one domestic actors in the Venezuelan crisis have to make, whether Venezuelan population or the Venezuelan military. Both national and international actors have to choose between actively pursuing Maduro’s toppling with all the risks that choice carries, or accepting the status quo. Venezuela’s situation has rendered the options extremely limited, with some arguing no option is more preferable than the next. The words ‘uncertainty’ and ‘disastrous’ will be attributed to the Venezuelan policy future. The question that remains is: to whom will those criticisms be directed?

[1] “Tightening the Grip | Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chávez's Venezuela.” Human Rights Watch, 17 July 2012, www.hrw.org/report/2012/07/17/tightening-grip/concentration-and-abuse-power-chavezs-venezuela.
[2] "Removing Maduro; Venezuela." The Economist, 26 Jan. 2019, p. 10(US). Expanded Academic ASAP, Accessed 8 May 2019. http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A570872240/EAIM?u=glasuni&sid=EAIM&xid=804c08d3.
[3] Corrales, Javier. ‘’How to tackle Venezuela’s military problem’’. The New York Times. 4 March 2019. Accessed May 14, 2019.
 
[4] AP News Agency. Venezuela military controls food as nation goes hungry.1 January 2017. Accessed April 8, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/venezuela-military-controls-food-nation-hungry-170101195414433.html.
[5] Martínez, Eugenio. The opposition is the next objective of social control of Chavism in Venezuela.21 December 2017. Accessed April 18, 2019.https://www.diariolasamericas.com/america-latina/la-oposicion-es-el-proximo-objetivo-del-control-social-del-chavismo-venezuela-n4139849.
[6] Rendon, Moises. “The Maduro Diet: Food v. Freedom in Venezuela.” CSIS.9 July 2018. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://www.csis.org/analysis/maduro-diet-food-v-freedom-venezuela.
[7] Unidad Investigativa de Venezuela. La delegación del poder estatal: Los “colectivos”.18 May 2018. Accessed April 9, 2019. https://es.insightcrime.org/investigaciones/la-delegacion-del-poder-estatal-los-colectivos.
[8] Berlinger, Joshua. "As Guaido Admits He Needs More Military Support, Trump Warns of Worse to Come in Venezuela." CNN. May 02, 2019. Accessed May 08, 2019. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/05/02/americas/venezuela-maduro-guaido-intl/index.html.
[9] Schemidt, Ronaldo. "A Un Año De Los CLAP Se Entregan Bolsas Incompletas Y Con Menos Kilos." El Interes. March 12, 2017. Accessed May 08, 2019. http://elestimulo.com/elinteres/a-un-ano-de-los-clap-se-entregan-bolsas-incompletas-y-con-menos-kilos/. 

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