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Venezuelan Folly, From Oil Riches to Food Beggary

Venezuela is one of a handful of petrol states that imagined they could live it up forever off crude oil cash. After oil prices sank, decades of neglecting agriculture has now left a nation literally starving.

Venezuelans carry food across the Colombian border last December.
Venezuelans carry food across the Colombian border last December.
Jorge Castro

-Analysis-

Venezuela is one of the world's richest countries, the fifth biggest exporter of crude oil and the third among the United States' energy suppliers. Its proven crude reserves are the second biggest globally, after Saudi Arabia.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the world went through a commodities super-cycle that produced record-setting high prices across the board, from metals to fossil fuels and farm products. When Hugo Chávez was president of Venezuela (1999 to 2013), the country earned more than $1 trillion from oil sales, and everything duly revolved around crude which alongside its derivatives, constitutes 98% of Venezuela's exports.

That figure exceeds the amounts earned in the 1970s (under the liberal President Carlos Andrés Pérez), when the world suffered several oil shocks and crude oil went from two dollars a barrel to $10 in a decade. It was a time when almost anything seemed possible for "Saudi Venezuela," and the South American nation came close to having all it wanted.

Today, it is a country stricken hard by a fall of more than 70% in crude prices in the last three years. It has practically lost its importing capacities and cannot meet domestic demand for food, of which some 70% comes from abroad. What situation this leaves Venezuela in is nothing less than hunger, especially among the poorer classes and most particularly those living in and around the capital Caracas.

Venezuela is going through an acute process of disintegration of its economic, political and social structures, which is leading it toward becoming a so-called failed state. Its crisis is a stark reminder that a country's food security depends essentially on domestic factors, notably its public policy. The crucial element here is the presence of a functioning state able to act and govern, rather than factors like supply and demand. And today, that state is sorely lacking in Venezuela.

Food crises are an essentially domestic, not global problem.

When it comes to food and food policy, there are two types of countries or regions in the world. There are those that enjoy excess production, and those with deficits, which must import food. The excess producers in the Western hemisphere are, typically, the United States and Canada in the north and Argentina and Brazil in the south.

There are also countries that have stopped exporting food and become importers, and since 1990 the International Monetary Fund has observed 27 countries that have undergone such a change. Food shortages erupt when countries that have undergone this strategic shift lose some or all of their ability to finance imports. This is the source of the catastrophic situation seen today in Venezuela.

Food and farming products are a scarce commodity on the international market. Only 8% of the world's food production is traded abroad, and this comes almost entirely from countries with a surplus. That confirms again that food crises are an essentially domestic, not global problem.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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