The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How ‘food apartheid’ is punishing some Venezuelans

Venezuelan citizens line up to buy food at a store in Caracas on Nov. 30. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — With food riots breaking out and supermarket shelves woefully bare, the government of embattled President Nicolás Maduro launched a new food distribution system in April promising to deliver subsidized groceries to every household in need.

Maduro called the new system “CLAPs” (Local Committees of Supply and Production). The name might be fitting, because those who don’t applaud his government haven’t been getting anything to eat.

Maduro told Venezuelans that the CLAP system would alleviate chronic scarcities and the “economic war” against his government he says is being waged by opposition leaders, business owners and the street-level black market vendors known as “bachaqueros.” The CLAPs would go door to door in Venezuela’s poorest communities selling bags of groceries at huge discounts.

Instead, critics say the system has devolved into a kind of “food apartheid” meant to punish those who oppose Maduro.

“I was told very clearly and straight to my face: We won’t sell you the bag of food, this benefit is reserved only for chavistas,” said Carmen Villegas, who lives in the rough Caracas neighborhood of Catia. She was referring to people who support the government's socialist policies, enacted by former president Hugo Chávez.

Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, is now trading against the U.S. dollar at a black-market rate of more than 4,200 to 1, up from roughly 2,000 a month ago. So the grocery bags can be a lifeline for families who have seen their savings and their salaries evaporate.

The CLAP bags typically contain basic products such as corn flour, pasta, sugar, coffee, oil or butter that have become Venezuela’s most sought-after items. But Maduro has neighborhood groups loyal to his government in charge of determining who gets the cheap groceries and who doesn’t.

“In my building, there are seven apartments, and I’m the only one who didn’t receive the bag of food,” said Escarlet Rodríguez, 61, a retired teacher. Rodríguez, along with the rest of her family, are known in her neighborhood as opposition supporters, and she said they were denied groceries from her local CLAP until only recently, after she made repeated complaints.

“The goal of the CLAPs is to administer hunger,” opposition leader Jesus Torrealba said Friday on his weekly radio show, blasting the program as a cynical ploy by Maduro to starve his critics.

According to Venezuela’s Food Ministry, the organizations tasked with overseeing the CLAPs are all community-level groups that identify themselves as chavistas, socialists and government loyalists.

Provea, a Caracas-based rights group, said the CLAPs have introduced a form of food discrimination that is exacerbating social unrest. The group said it has recorded hundreds of complaints from Venezuelans who say they are being left hungry because of their opposition to the government.

Because the CLAPs are not controlled by any formal institution and operate with little oversight, they invite abuse and corruption, said Provea researcher and journalist Edgar López. “Anything can happen,” he said.

The government does little to hide the exclusionary nature of the distribution network. In July, Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz called the CLAPs a “political instrument to defend the revolution.” Other politicians are even more explicit: Government opponents “shouldn't be part of the CLAPs,” said Cojedes state Gov. Erika Farías.

In response to the charges of food apartheid, Freddy Bernal, the Maduro official in charge of the CLAPs, said the groceries “are not for everyone — just for the poorest class.”

But the country’s inflation rate has rendered Venezuela’s longtime class distinctions increasingly meaningless, as families who were once solidly middle class now spend hours each day searching for food.

Even the families who do receive the food complain that the CLAP supplies are irregularly delivered and inadequate to meet their basic needs.

“It’s not enough to feed a whole family,” said Edgar Alvarez, 65, a resident of the 23 de Enero neighborhood in Caracas that is well-known as a chavista bastion. Alvarez said he hasn’t received any groceries in nearly a month. “Two bags of corn flour, a bottle of cooking oil and two cans of tuna aren’t enough to survive on,” he said.