The Politics of Food in Venezuela


Ana Felicien, Christina Schiavoni and Liccia Romero

ew countries and political processes have been subject to such scrutiny, yet so generally misunderstood, as Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution. This is particularly true today, as the international media paints an image of absolute devastation in the country, wrought by failed policies and government mismanagement. At the same time, the three national elections of 2017 demonstrated a strong show of support for the continuation of the revolution under its current leadership. This seeming paradox, we are told, can only be attributed to government tendencies of co-optation and clientelism, along with a closing of democratic space. Such messages are reproduced many times over, both in the media and in certainintellectual circles.

A benefit of the intense attention paid to Venezuela is that a recurring narrative can be identified, which goes basically as follows. The central character is Hugo Chávez Frías, a strong-armed political leader who enjoyed the double advantage of personal charisma and high oil prices over the course of his presidency from 1999 through 2012. In 2013, Chávez died, and the following year global oil prices plunged. Amid the perfect storm of the loss of Chávez, the collapse in oil prices, and the government’s misguided policies, Venezuela has steadily slid into a state of economic and political disintegration, with food and other necessities growing scarce, in turn sparking social unrest as people take to the streets.The government, headed by Chávez’s less charismatic successor, Nicolás Maduro, is going to desperate lengths to hang onto power, becoming increasingly authoritarian in the process, while maintaining the populist rhetoric of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution.

However, this dominant narrative does not capture the complexities of what is happening in Venezuela today. There are significant holes in the account, which raise important questions: who are “the people” at the center of this analysis? What, if any, are the different impacts of present challenges on various sectors of society? How should the Venezuelan state be understood, and where and how does the role of capital figure? By focusing on the politics of food as a key area in which the country’s broader politics are playing out—particularly by looking at recent shortages and food lines, as well as what have been presented as “food riots”—a multitude of issues can be better understood. Often-ignored matters of race, class, gender, and geography demand special attention.

We will begin by looking to the past to situate present trends in their proper context. By homing in on the dynamics around Venezuela’s most highly consumed staple foods, we can gain insight into the current conjuncture, particularly the recent food shortages. Some of the main drivers of the shortages come from forces opposing the Bolivarian Revolution, which are increasingly gaining ground within the state. We will then discuss responses to the shortages by the government and popular forces.

For a full read of this brief, click here or on the picture to download the pdf file.


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