I must confess that, until about a month ago, I wasn’t aware of the level of desperation in vast parts of Venezuela’s rural population—nor how the always-resourceful citizens are dealing with it. While on air for my daily radio show on Radio Fe y Alegría, I got a text message from a listener in Guasdualito, Apure State telling me, “I am a mother of two children, and we have no food. So I feed them mangoes both in the morning and the evening.”
The lady continued: “And what worries me the most is that I don’t know what I’ll feed them when the mango season is over. We are starving.” This message not only moved me, it also set off alarms regarding the mangoes in the midst of this food crisis we suffer in Venezuela, which undoubtedly affects the poorest the hardest.
Not being a man of the land myself, mangoes are something I associate with picking up at the supermarket. So, I turned to Wikipedia: according to the online popular encyclopedia, the mango is a fruit from the inter-tropical convergence zone, with a juicy, sweet pulp. It grows spontaneously and wildly in the American inter-tropical zone, with a harvest time peaking in May.
The woman’s text woke me to the bounty of Venezuela’s nature when its dysfunctional market failed to provide even the most basic goods.
A street in the west of Barquisimeto, through which I’ve passed almost daily in the last few years, has several mango trees. Until last year, it was normal to see how the fruit dropped and literally rotted on the street. This year, I haven’t seen any mangoes on the road. This week, on various spots of that street, I did observe some people with bags picking up the mangoes. A friend who has a lush mango tree told me that he’s not giving mangoes away for the first time in forty years. Every two or three days, strangers knock on his door asking his permission to enter and take the mangoes from his garden: “Please, sir, we have nothing to eat.”
I still remember streets full of mangoes in Cojedes State, in cities like San Carlos or Tinaquillo, in May of past years. This May 2016, there is not even one mango left on the streets. According to a journalist from San Carlos, “there have even been fights among people when they’re picking up the mangoes.”
Perhaps there’s no better and heartbreaking example of the failure of the chavista model than a people’s need to turn to the most primitive form of survival as hunters and gatherers. A couple of weeks ago, the human rights group Provea presented its 2015 annual report on the country’s situation. Among their findings were that “the numbers on shortage, scarcity, inflation and high costs of the Normative Food Basket keep increasing rapidly. According to the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV), the accumulated variation of the National Consumer Price Index (INPC) during 2015 was of 180.9 percent, but the one regarding food and non-alcoholic beverages was of 315 percent.”
Consistent with the Documentation and Social Analysis Center of the Teachers Venezuelan Federation (Cendas-FVM), the average cost of the basic food basket in Venezuela was rated at 184,906 bolivares at the end of April 2016. That represented an increase of 718 percent compared to April 2015. According to the data of the center, at the end of April, purchasing the basic food basket for a 5-member family required nearly 13 minimum wage salaries (15,051 bolivares).
And, unfortunately, according to the Confederation of Industries (Conindustria): 65 percent of Venezuelan workers are at the level of the minimum wage salary.
In addition, there is the shortage and the scarcity of products. A study performed by Datanálisis, in April 2016, showed that only 3.6 percent of the surveyed individuals had a positive opinion about the supply and general access to first necessity products. The scarcity and shortage have now extended to medicine and basic medical care. Unfortunately, surveys are the only way we can know about these shortages. A few months ago the state stopped publishing altogether numbers about scarcity.
In the past few months Venezuelans—and, in particular, the poor—have been able to survive on mangoes. But what happens when mango season is over?
Andrés Cañizález is a journalist and researcher at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. You can follow him on twitter at @infocracia.