As Venezuelans Go Hungry, The Military Is Trafficking In Food | KERA News

As Venezuelans Go Hungry, The Military Is Trafficking In Food

Jan 9, 2017
Originally published on January 10, 2017 11:19 am

In Venezuela, food has become so scarce it's now being sold on the black market. One person tells the Associated Press, "it's a better business than drugs."

And the food traffickers are the very people sworn to protect Venezuela: the nation's military.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gave the military complete control of the food supply last summer, after people began protesting in the streets over food rationing. Shortages had become so bad that people were even ransacking grocers — though many were largely empty.

These days, hunger remains widespread. But if you venture into the black markets, you'll find foods that aren't available in the state-run supermarkets, "where people would prefer to shop because it's a lot cheaper," says Joshua Goodman, the AP's news director for the Andes. He was part of the AP team that investigated the food trafficking situation.

"These goods are only getting into the country because the military is importing them," Goodman tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "And when you see the food sold at these makeshift markets, there's usually military people standing by with weapons, watching over it all, if not actually selling the food directly."

And the military isn't just running these black markets — it's getting rich off them, Goodman says.

Goodman spoke with Cornish about the findings of the AP investigation. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

How does this affect the price of food?

Right now there are some things that are incredibly cheap in Venezuela but in incredibly scarce supply. If you're one of the lucky people to get the food at the government-set price, you are doing quite well. But a lot of people can't afford to spend an entire day in line at a state supermarket, only to find the shelves have already been emptied by the time they get through the door. So a lot of people do have to go to the black market to find food. It's a very unfortunate situation. Something like 80 percent of the country right now says they have lost weight because of what they sort of joke is the President Maduro diet — the forced austerity upon the country.

You found lots of examples of how, essentially, the military is getting rich off controlling the food supply — even when people are trying to bring food into the country.

We documented a case of a South American businessman. He admitted to us that he had paid millions of dollars in bribes over the years to bring food into the country. And he really didn't care who he was paying, because the prices [at which] he was able to sell to the government were so sky high — something like more than double the international price for a shipment of corn, for example. And that made it very easy for him to pay kickbacks to government officials. And of course, that worked its way all down the food chain. This businessman specifically pointed to the food minister right now, who's a military general, or people close to him having received the money that he was paying.

Now what's happened to people trying to bring evidence of this corruption to the president?

Venezuela right now is a very opaque place. We don't have a lot of info about the internal deliberations of the government. There are some people in the military who clearly are upset with this situation. However, there are some serious entrenched interests within the military who are politically important to President Maduro. He is a man who is a hanging by a thread. ... He does not have the popularity of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez. And the military for him has become an invaluable crutch in the face of mass street protests and sinking popularity and hyperinflation, almost.

So this is a way to keep [the military] paid, frankly. Is that what's going on?

It's a way to keep them fed, you could even argue. Because a lot of this food, I'm sure, is going to the families of the military, to feed their own families and friends. And yeah, it puts money in their pocket at a time when there really isn't much money in the country.

What has shocked you most about this situation?

I think what has shocked me the most is the degree to which the military has really sullied its own reputation. They were seen by many as a disciplined force that could actually provide answers to the serious problems Venezuela is facing. Instead they seem to be much more self-interested, much more corrupt than I had imagined when we started this project.

You've talked to a lot of officials in your story. For average Venezuelans – what are people saying about this?

They're outraged. They know fully well that while they're not eating, people are getting rich. This is an issue that touches the stomachs, literally, of every Venezuelan. A lot of Venezuelans who would be sympathetic to the government are very upset over this issue. And when they find out people are actually profiting from it — it's a potentially explosive situation for the government.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Venezuela, food has become so scarce it's now on the black market. One person tells the Associated Press it's a better business than drugs. And the food traffickers are the very people sworn to protect Venezuela - the nation's military. The president gave the military complete control of the food supply after people began protesting in the streets over food rationing. I spoke with Joshua Goodman. He was part of the AP team that investigated this.

JOSHUA GOODMAN: Basically, you go to some markets in different parts of Venezuela, and you can find goods that you can't find at the state-run supermarkets where people would prefer to shop because it's a lot cheaper.

Now, these goods are only getting into the country because the military is importing them. And usually when you see the food sold at these makeshift markets, there's usually military people standing by with weapons watching over it all, if not actually selling the food directly.

CORNISH: How does this affect the price of food in the country?

GOODMAN: Right now there are some things that are incredibly cheap in Venezuela but incredibly scarce supply. And if you're one of the lucky people to get the food at the government-set price, you're doing quite well. But you know, a lot of people can't afford to spend an entire day in line at a state supermarket only to find that the shelves have already been emptied by the time they get through the door.

So a lot of people do have to go through to the black market to find food. And you know, it's a very unfortunate situation, but something like 80 percent of the country right now says that they have lost weight because of what they sort of joke as the President Maduro diet - the forced sort of austerity upon the country.

CORNISH: So you found lots of examples of essentially how the military is getting rich off of controlling the food supply even when people are trying to bring food into the country, right?

GOODMAN: Right. We documented the case of a South American businessman. He admitted to us that he had paid millions of dollars in bribes over the years to bring food into the country. And he really didn't care, you know, who he was paying because the prices that he was able to sell to the government were so sky-high, something like more than double the international price for a shipment of corn, for example. And

you know, that made it very easy for him to pay kickbacks to government officials. And of course, that worked its way all across and all down the food chain. And this businessman specifically pinpointed to the food minister right now, who's a military general, as having received or people close to him having received the money that he was paying.

CORNISH: Now, what's happened to people who have tried to bring evidence of this corruption to the president?

GOODMAN: You know, Venezuela right now is a very opaque place. We don't have a lot of information about the internal deliberations of the government. There are some people in the military who clearly are upset with this situation.

However, there are some serious entrenched interests within the military who are politically important to President Maduro. I mean he is a man who is hanging by a thread in many cases. You know, he does not have the popularity as his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez. And the military for him has become an invaluable crutch in the face of, you know, mass street protests and sinking popularity and hyperinflation almost.

CORNISH: So this is a way to keep them paid, frankly. Is that what's going on?

GOODMAN: It's a way to keep them fed, you could even argue, because, you know, a lot of this food I'm sure is going to the families of the military to feed their own families and friends. And yeah, it puts money in their pocket at a time when there really isn't much money in the country right now.

CORNISH: What has shocked you most about this situation?

GOODMAN: I think what has shocked me the most is the degree to which the military has really, you know, sullied its own reputation. They were seen by many as sort of a disciplined force that could actually provide a lot of answers to the serious problems Venezuela is facing. Instead, they seem to be much more self-interested, much more corrupt than I had imagined when we started this project.

CORNISH: And you've talked to a lot of officials in your story. For average Venezuelans, what are people saying about this?

GOODMAN: They're outraged. I mean they know fully well that while they're not eating, people are getting rich. And I think this is an issue that touches the stomachs, literally, of every Venezuelan. A lot of Venezuelans who would be sort of sympathetic to the government are very upset over this issue. And when they find out that people are actually profiting from it, that will just, you know - it's a potentially explosive situation for the government.

CORNISH: Joshua Goodman is the Associated Press's news director for the Andes. Thank you for speaking with us.

GOODMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO SONG, "DIVISION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.