The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As Venezuelans starve, the generals grow fat

A youth uses his pillow as a bag to collect rice from the pavement that shook loose from a food cargo truck waiting to enter the port in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, on Nov. 14. As millions of Venezuelans go hungry this year, food trafficking has become one of the most lucrative businesses in the country. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)
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“Why doesn’t the army rebel?”

It’s a question those of us who write about Venezuela hear all the time. And I can understand why: Formerly a stable, sophisticated, middle-income country awash in oil wealth, Venezuela has experienced a dizzying downward spiral over the past two years.

Today, Venezuela’s is arguably the world’s worst-run economy. Food shortages are pervasive, and food prices are rising fast — a deadly combination that has left millions unable to find enough to eat. In a recent Venebarometro survey, a shocking 78 percent of respondents said they or someone they knew had lost weight because they’re no longer able to buy as much food.

As this once-prosperous country faces the unsettling new reality of mass-scale hunger, it really is hard not to wonder: Why doesn’t the army rebel?

Now, thanks to a landmark investigation by the Associated Press, we have the genuinely shocking answer: Far from rebelling, Venezuela’s armed forces actively profit from their countrymen’s hunger.

This year, President Nicolás Maduro granted the armed forces virtually unlimited authority over the nation’s food imports and distribution. Domestic food production is down sharply in the wake of a botched land reform program, meaning imports now account for most of the nation’s food. But putting the military in charge of this delicate domain has led to an explosion of corruption, as well-connected officers mercilessly prey on every part of the distribution chain, from the initial contracts and the foreign currency needed to fund them to storage, transportation and distribution.

In dozens of interviews, the AP’s Hannah Dreier and Joshua Goodman document a shocking web of military bribery, graft and kickback schemes, noting that some insiders now consider food more profitable than drug smuggling — another business the Venezuelan military has considerable expertise in.

The graft Dreier and Goodman found is pervasive. First, the military systematically overpays for imported food. This year, to take just one example, it budgeted $118 million for one recent shipment of yellow corn that could be bought for less than $68 million on the open market. Much of the excess makes its way into kickbacks to high-ranking officers with the power to approve the contracts.

But that’s just the beginning. Once the food is shipped to Venezuela, opportunities for graft multiply, with one businessman describing the onshoring process as “an unbroken chain of bribery from when your ship comes in until the food is driven out in trucks.”

Importers have to bribe one army officer to allow the ship to dock, another to get the food unloaded, another to produce a sanitary-inspection certificate (just the paperwork, you understand; no one really inspects anything), another to allow it to be taken out of storage at the port and shipped to market. The process is cumbersome, and no one seems to care that while they work out the shakedowns, the food itself often simply rots.

Some of Venezuela’s most powerful men are directly implicated in the scandal, including Gen. Rodolfo Marco Torres, the food minister who used to serve as finance minister, as well as Gen. Carlos Osorio, inspector general of the armed forces and himself once food minister. These are people who sit at the top table: political operatives with a direct line to the president.

Neither replied to the AP’s insistent requests for comment.

This in itself is a telling sign of the rot at the top of the Venezuelan regime. Faced with serious, specific, documented allegations that they personally profit from their countrymen’s hardship, top officials are perfectly comfortable to simply stonewall. And why shouldn’t they? In Venezuela, high officials are effectively above the law, and they know it. Why would they bother with reporters’ questions?

The result is a grotesque paradox: A government that bills itself as radically pro-poor in fact drips with contempt for the poor. Today, with only a third of Venezuelans eating three meals a day, the officers who profit from mass hunger won’t even answer questions about it.

As a matter of tactics, there’s a ruthless, Machiavellian genius to the Venezuelan setup. Instead of fearing destabilization from Venezuelans’ descent into mass hunger, the regime is bolstered by it. As foreigners wonder why the army doesn’t rebel at the scale of destitution, the generals quietly ferret away the millions earmarked for feeding the people into discreet offshore accounts.

In Puerto Cabello, Venezuela’s biggest port, the poor are no longer under any illusions. They know much of the food that goes through the port will rot in warehouses while the generals shake down suppliers. They know that when that happens, raw recruits will be ordered to furtively bury the spoiled food in the town dump. And so they watch the dump for military vehicles so that, when the men in olive green leave, they can go dig up the rotting food to see what they can salvage to feed their children.