Venezuela's New Food Distribution System Could Be Used To Punish, Critics Worry

The new system, known as “CLAP” in Spanish, aims to give the government the power to distribute 70% of the country’s food — a move that could leave critics starving.

MEXICO CITY — Venezuelans fear that a new system designed to stave off a food crisis in the country could be used to punish those who criticize the government.

Thousands of committees made up of state employees and neighborhood leaders across Venezuela are now in charge of delivering bags of basics like flour and milk to registered users. On Tuesday, Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz said the goal is for the government to manage 70% of the nation’s food distribution and for private companies to be responsible for the rest.

The new system, known as Local Supply and Production Committees, or CLAP in Spanish, is meant to reduce hourslong lines outside of supermarkets. Lines, lootings, and black market sales of everything from diapers to cooking oil have grown as shortages of basic commodities in the country have worsened in recent months.

The CLAP must be a vaccine “against contraband and against all forms of parasitism and theft,” said Maduro during a recent televised speech. Maduro has blamed the crisis in the country on an “economic war” spearheaded by the country’s elite, who, he says, are hoarding food in an effort to destabilize Venezuela.

Critics say the system is the latest attempt by the struggling government to amass more power while punishing its enemies. “The CLAP have to be rejected by the people,” said opposition legislator Julio Borges during a congressional session. “They mean politicizing and giving organizations within [the ruling party] power over who eats and who doesn’t.”

With imports down around 40% this year, guaranteeing access to food must be a priority, analysts say, but the CLAP solution is straight out of the government’s usual playbook, which has so far proved unsuccessful in ending the crisis. "There’s a huge base for discretion and abuse and corruption," said David Smilde, an expert on Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Some people fear that the government will cross-reference their name with the list of people who recently signed a recall referendum against Maduro and deny their request.

“Food-based discrimination is pure fascism. We all have a right to feed ourselves #NoALosClap,” tweeted PJTorres.

Getting food is already a quixotic affair for many Venezuelans. The ones who cannot afford to buy items from bachaqueros, as resellers are called, must spend entire days in line, often to purchase only a handful of items, either because they can’t afford more — the IMF predicts inflation in Venezuela will rise to nearly 500% this year — or because the government has placed a cap on the number of basic items individuals can get each week.

Hunger has also risen: The number of people who had two meals or less a day was 12.1% last year, up from 11.3% in 2014, according to a survey conducted by the Central University of Venezuela and a nutrition-focused nonprofit.

Unverified images and videos of supermarket lootings have flooded social media in recent days. In some, authorities appear to throw tear gas at the crowds to disperse them.

The country’s troubles have grown rapidly in the last year. Frequent electricity outages, a result of an energy crisis, have led to the government declaring a two-day work week. The opposition, which gained a Congressional majority for the first time in 16 years, has been unable to accomplish anything substantial during its brief tenure.

Maduro’s administration insists that the Venezuelan elite and the U.S., both hungry to squash the revolution started by former president Hugo Chavéz, are behind the country’s troubles, in particular the widespread shortages. Several government websites have placed prominent ads urging people to report food hoarding. “Because we are all victims of the economic war,” the bright blue box says, along with the number to call: 0-800-Sabotage.

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