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    VENEZUELA
    Food shortage sparks Cuba-style rationing
    Amid a continuing food shortage, the Venezuelan government has announced
    a rationing system similar to Cuba's.
    Posted on Sun, Feb. 24, 2008
    BY CASTO OCANDO
    El Nuevo Herald

    Venezuela has adopted an unprecedented system of food rationing similar
    to the ration cards used in Cuba, after several months of food shortages
    that have caused popular discontent.

    The Ministry of Nutrition announced last week that beneficiaries of the
    government's food distribution program would only be allowed one
    purchase a day. The amount of food allocated to each family would be
    based on a ''social study'' the government performed, it said.

    QUEUING FOR FOOD

    Earlier this year, the government created a distribution network known
    as Pdval — financed by the state-run oil company Petróleos de
    Venezuela, or PDVSA — to solve shortages of groceries like beef, eggs
    and milk that have sparked long lines in recent months.

    According to Asdrubal Chávez, President Hugo Chávez's cousin and the
    coordinator for Pdval, the distribution centers will now keep a registry
    of families shopping at each center to ensure that no home receives a
    ''surplus'' of staple products.

    Under the new rationing system, government distribution centers will
    open at 8 a.m. and each customer will be given a control number that
    will allow him to shop for food that day. The customer will also fill
    out a registry card with his name, ID number and the products and
    quantities to be purchased.

    Business groups and the government blame each other for the shortages.
    The Venezuelan economy is actually booming and the country is awash in
    money thanks to record-high oil prices — its main export. Chávez
    contends that businesses are boycotting his socialist revolution, while
    business groups blame the problems on the government's price controls.

    ''If it weren't for the revolution, the people would have already
    starved to death,'' said Chávez at a news conference on Friday. “We
    will not rest until we solve all of these serious problems.''

    The Venezuelan government has taken a series of measures to confront the
    shortages, though none has shown results.

    It has used huge amounts of PDVSA revenues to import staples and has
    waived taxes on basic food. It is also combating rampant corruption at
    the other government-subsidized distribution network, Mercal, which was
    created in 2003.

    According to a report from Venezuela's Bolivarian News Agency (ABN), by
    the end of 2007 Mercal had reported 340 cases of fraud involving the
    sale of subsidized products to private retailers. This year alone, about
    57 new cases of similar fraudulent activities have been reported in
    relation to Mercal.

    Luis Rodríguez, executive director of the Association of Supermarkets
    and Convenience Stores, said the shortages are not transitory but
    structural and they have been mounting for at least the past eight months.

    According to Rodríguez, supermarkets throughout Venezuela are
    experiencing shortages of chicken, beef, pork, dairy products, eggs,
    flour and tomato derivatives, such as ketchup.

    Rodríguez blames the shortages on price controls established by the
    government, which have left producers with little reason to increase
    production.

    Hiram Gaviria, a former Minister of Agriculture and now director of an
    agricultural trade union known as Agro-Nutritional Alliance, said the
    new restrictions will make the situation worse and give even less
    motivation for internal production and normal food supply.

    Food shortages already are taking a political toll on Chávez. According
    to a poll released Friday by the polling firm Hinterlaces, 79 percent of
    Venezuelans believe shortages are the same or getting worse, while 42
    percent blame Chávez.

    LOOTING

    The shortages also have resulted in isolated and spontaneous episodes of
    looting during the past couple of weeks. In Maracaibo, the country's
    second largest city, residents of the poor Cristo de Aranza neighborhood
    forced their way into a Mercal distribution center on Thursday, and took
    everything on a single night — including the coolers and
    air-conditioning system.

    In the western state of Zulia, around 200 people walked away on Tuesday
    night with two tons of milk, sugar and pasta destined for 155 Mercal
    distribution centers, police said.

    In Puerto Ordaz, in eastern Venezuela, people intercepted and looted a
    truck belonging to food-distributor Grupo Polar on Wednesday. According
    to press reports, within minutes dozens of people emptied a shipment of
    cornmeal, rice, cooking oil and detergent.

    A few weeks ago residents of a town called Sabanetas — Chávez's
    birthplace — broke into a Mercal distribution center and looted it.
    Shortly after, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, the president's father and the
    regional governor, ordered the militarization of the area to prevent
    further incidents.

    Casto Ocando can be reached at ocasto@herald.com

    http://www.miamiherald.com/news/americas/venezuela/story/430874.html

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