Gangs fight over rations of food as grocery stores are ransacked. Police try to stop mobs of hungry people from looting the butcher. A girl, just four years old, is shot to death.

It sounds like the opening scenes of a post-apocalyptic film, but it’s the reality facing the people of Venezuela.

In the past two weeks, there have been more than 50 riots protesting the lack of food, as well as widespread looting (there are at least 10 looting a day, according to the Venezuelan Observatory for Violence). At least five people have been killed in the riots, including a four-year-old girl and a teenaged boy.

Basic products such as corn flour, milk, sugar, or eggs are being sold at exorbitant prices, and Venezuelans must line up for hours at grocery stores in hopes of bringing home even the smallest amount of food.

What’s causing this tragic situation? A staggering economic collapse which has left this South American country unable to produce or import enough food to feed its people.

Venezuela’s economy has been ranked as the most miserable in the world since 2013, even before the country’s recession in 2014. The strained economy has led to nationwide food shortages, which prompted President Nicolás Maduro to declare a 60-day state of emergency on May 13. In a televised speech, Maduro also criticized private food companies and accused supermarkets of hoarding food.

For years, imported products have been cheaper than local products due to government policies. Venezuela has become accustomed to processed foods, in particular the omnipresent corn flour used to make arepas, a traditional corn pancake. Now, the New York Times reports [link] that many people are making arepas out of plantains, yucca, or yams, or even grinding corn flour by hand.

While the Venezuelan government has called the crisis “inevitable,” Venezuelan journalist Francisco Toro has argued the opposite, and attributes the shortages to basic policy mistakes.

When President Maduro came to power, he inherited the inflation problem from his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. His policies align closely with those of Chávez, for which he is often criticized. The opposition won a majority in the last election, and are racing to organize a referendum that would oust President Maduro before Jan. 10, 2017. This deadline is significant because a referendum would trigger new elections, rather than a transfer of power to Maduro’s vice president.

And the food shortage is having some serious impact. Some 30 percent of school children are malnourished, according to a Guardian study of 4,000 kids. Additionally, school absences are on the rise.

Another study found that 12 percent of Venezuelans were eating less than three meals a day. Those eating three meals a day are subsisting on empty carbohydrates rather than a well-rounded diet.

Nutritionists predict that the next generation of Venezuelans will be shorter and wider, due to the lack of calcium in a typical diet. This is, of course, only one of many effects that a reduced diet will have on the general population.

As a short-term fix, Maduro has urged people to grow their own food and to raise chickens in their homes. He also created the ministry of urban farming. With 80 percent of Venezuelans living in cities, an urban farming initiative could help to reduce the food shortage.

The government also plans to distribute food directly to family homes. Rodolfo Marco Torres, the nation’s food minister, says 70 percent of the nation’s food will be distributed through communal councils.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan citizens are left wondering when their next meal will be, sacrificing meals for their loved ones, and scavenging through looted storefronts. While frustration boils over into angry demonstrations, it’s unclear how the government will respond in this time of crisis, and what it takes to inspire action. To the people, the riots are the only way they can make their hunger heard.


Defeat Poverty

Deadly riots in Venezuela bring food shortage to global stage

By Madeline Schwartz