The Fracas in Caracas
Venezuela’s Hunger Games

The images out of Venezuela last week were striking: 500 women, dressed in white, walked right past border agents into neighboring Colombia. Then they went shopping. They returned home with goods that over the past few months have grown increasingly scarce in Venezuela: corn meal, canned beans, soap, toilet paper.

That trickle grew into a flood this past weekend when Venezuela’s government allowed 35,000 to cross the same border.

Yesterday, desperate to demonstrate some control over the country’s food situation, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced that he was the military in charge of the country’s food supply. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Venezuela’s defense minister is now responsible for “transporting and distributing basic products, controlling prices and stimulating production.”

But this isn’t the first time Maduro has turned to the military to clean up when things got messy. In fact, it’s part of a larger pattern of reliance on the top brass. Again, the WSJ:

Since coming to power three years ago, Mr. Maduro has relied increasingly on the armed forces as a spiraling economic crisis pushed his approval ratings to record lows and food shortages led to lootings. Generals are already in charge of state companies importing the bulk of Venezuela’s food; they run the country’s largest bank, a television station and a state mining company.

The armed forces have swiftly repressed all opposition rallies as well as the food riots that flare up daily across the country.

“Maduro is giving the keys to Miraflores [presidential palace] over to a military leader who is unable to confront the economic crisis,” said opposition deputy Julio Borges. “What this means is more roadblocks, more corruption and less production.”

Happy Hunger Games! “May the odds be ever in your favor,” the chavista regime seems to be saying to the military. And while the military won’t be able to solve Venezuela’s slow-rolling food crisis—only market reforms will be able to do that—it will be able to cut itself a juicy slice of Venezuela’s ever-shrinking pie. The military has had massive corruption problems for years; now it monopolizes distribution of commodities that command extraordinary prices at a time desperate people are willing to pay them. It’s a recipe for some serious profiteering.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s opposition marches on an empty stomach. But so do the urban poor who have traditionally supported chavismo. Will Venezuela’s vocal and active civil society succeed in bringing some of them into the fold? If they do, Venezuela’s generals will have to choose between, on the one hand, an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans who want Maduro to go and, on the other, a president who enriches the uniformed class with patronage and economic control. It’s only a matter of time before the generals’ proximity to Maduro will make the people turn against them too. Rumors swirl about a coup in Caracas—which might allow the commanding officers to salvage their reputations—but it would be unwise to pay these reports much heed, because the military remains full of chavista loyalists. One thing is for certain: As Venezuela hosts its inaugural Hunger Games, there are no real winners. Even the champions won’t emerge unscathed.

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