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The Globe and Mail

Weaponizing hunger is a new low for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

Antulio Rosales is a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo

On May 20, Venezuela will hold presidential elections. These elections will not be fair and do not meet basic standards of transparency, according to the vast majority of the Venezuelan opposition and members of the international community. They are poised to re-elect President Nicolas Maduro for another six-year term.

The Maduro government is using the dire conditions of most Venezuelans to stay in power.

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Ninety per cent of Venezuelans reported not having enough money to purchase food in a nationwide survey. The vast majority of Venezuelans eat less than three times a day and more than half have lost an average of 24 pounds.

Income-related poverty has increased to 87 per cent of households, with 60 per cent in extreme poverty. In a context of hyperinflation and scarcity, more than a third of households report not purchasing any source of protein while more than 40 per cent of households rely mostly on tubers as the basis for their dietary needs.

The government clings to a discourse that apparently favours the poor, building on the memory of the oil bonanza and the social policies erected by the Bolivarian Revolution. As the country’s economic crisis unfolded in the past five years, these policies have deteriorated or have been eliminated altogether. The few that are left are used as mechanisms of social control and political coercion.

What happened to the social policies that the government became known for? In 2015, about 2.6 million people reported being beneficiaries of the health-care program, Mission Barrio Adentro, which gives communities access to primary care. Only 200,000 people used the program in 2017.

All the government’s efforts have now turned to food distribution. In 2017, 12.6 million received government-subsidized boxes of food called CLAP boxes.

The CLAP (Comites Locales de Abastecimiento y Produccion) is a network centralized by military authorities. Boxes are distributed in a discretionary manner to neighbourhood councils without formal oversight from elected officials. The network responds directly to the president.

CLAP boxes are not delivered regularly, their prices vary and their content is inconsistent. Most people use them not as their main source of food, but as a tool for barter. Basic products such as powdered milk have been found without the necessary nutrients to provide calcium and protein to a child. The imported milk barely costs US$1 a kilo, but government officials report paying US$4 to $7. This is a corruption scheme that profits from people’s hunger.

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The government distributes these boxes through an ID known as “el Carnet de la Patria or the homeland ID. This ID has a QR code used to store information about citizens, their socio-economic conditions, the benefits they receive and where they live. It is also used to replace the traditional citizenship ID.

Government officers demand this ID as a prerequisite for common bureaucratic procedures and as a way to obtain government benefits. Most people who receive CLAP boxes report having a “Carnet de la Patria” holder in their households.

Most important, the government has used this tool to coerce the population into political participation in favour of the government.

It has done so since 2017 when it organized scarcely competitive elections where the electoral conditions and polling stations have changed considerably. The so-called “puntos rojos,” which are red tents located outside polling stations, have been equipped with computers and phone lines to facilitate voter mobilization during election day. Here, government activists demand individuals activate their ID cards before casting their vote. This procedure works together with threats and suggestions that the government may be capable of knowing who they voted for. Ultimately, what is at risks for common Venezuelans is their access to subsidized food.

The use of electronic forms of data gathering has been successful at assuring participation in elections. The government’s victory in the 2017 regional elections (in which they won 18 of 23 seats) was to a large extent because of the use of this mechanism. It was successful in urban centres and poor neighbourhoods. Even though opposition support has increased in those areas , people here are more vulnerable to government pressure, and dependence on government-subsidized food is much higher.

The current economic crisis has been used as an opportunity to manipulate the poorest people’s needs for political support and discipline. Contrary to the government rhetoric, Mr. Maduro’s government has reduced or eliminated the policies of social protection. They have centered their social policy in a militarized food-distribution network geared toward political control.

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For the May elections to satisfy minimum fairness principles, at the very least, the government must allow international humanitarian support channelled through independent organizations. In addition, a crucial guarantee would be dismantling the focal points of surveillance and control.

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