Shortages in Venezuela have now hit an essential part of traditional Christmas and New Year’s meals, leaving frustrated citizens with a new holiday chorus: “We want our ham!” Ham has been in short supply, sending people fed up with shortages of this and other essentials into the streets to protest. “We didn’t have it for Christmas and it won’t be here for the New Year,” complains Miriam Brito during a protest in Caracas. Similar small demonstrations have multiplied throughout Venezuela, but the government of President Nicolas Maduro — whose country was once one of the wealthiest in Latin America — has promised that ham would be among foods sold at subsidized prices.
Brito said she has gone four months without receiving food subsidies. “They lied to us with ham,” said Brito, 40, the mother of a seven-year-old daughter. Falling oil prices, political unrest, and corruption have decimated the economy under Maduro, leading to chronic food and medicine shortages, and inflation which the IMF forecasts will exceed 2,300 percent in 2018. In November, creditors and ratings agencies declared the government and state-run oil firm PDVSA to be in partial default for missing interest and principle payments on bonds. About 100 people bang on saucepans around Brito and use rope, tires and debris to set up a street blockade. Venezuelans earn a minimum of roughly 450,000 bolivars per month, $135 at the official exchange rate, and $4.50 on the black market which is considered the reference rate. That’s also the non-subsidized price for 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of pork, putting it out of reach for Brito, a cashier whose salary barely exceeds the legal minimum. – ‘We have been sabotaged’ – When it’s available, subsidized meat sells for 30 times less. Aside from missing their seasonal ham on the bone, protesters complain about water and electricity shortages, which occur despite the fact that the country has the world’s largest proven reserves of oil. Maduro acknowledged glitches in the distribution of ham but blamed an international boycott linked, according to him, to severe economic sanctions imposed by Washington, and to sabotage by Portugal, which exports the ham. “Where did the ham go? We have been sabotaged. It’s the fault of one country: Portugal,” Maduro told the media. “They bought all the ham available for Venezuela, absolutely all, and we should have imported it… but they blocked our bank accounts and two ships that were coming” to Venezuela, he said. Lisbon denied the accusations. “The Portuguese government certainly does not have the power to sabotage ham,” said Lisbon’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augusto Santos Silva. “We live in a market economy and exports are the jurisdiction of business. There was obviously no political interference,” he said. Raporal, a Portuguese exporter of ham on the bone, said Venezuela owes about 40 million euros ($47.7 million) to suppliers under a 63.5 million euro contract signed in 2016. While the suppliers await the funds they say they are owed, Jesus Castellanos, 64, is among those anxious for his ham. Maduro “promised on television that he was going to make the ham come and now he gives us the fable of Portugal,” says the cobbler, who is also protesting. “People no longer believe his stories. People don’t want to live lies!” Several hams did arrive in this central neighborhood but they weren’t enough for the 300 families impatiently waiting. The ham was divided up randomly. “They are mocking us,” Brito said. Finally, riot police dispersed the protesters.
By Esteban ROJAS for AFP