Venezuela's vegetable brigades help families with escalating cost of food

Dozens of people form a line to pass vegetables hand to hand as they unload four tons of food from a truck. First come the potatoes, then the avocados and finally the tomatoes.

These and a dozen other vegetables are put into 20-kilogram bags for families to take home.

This vegetable brigade is organized every few weeks by the Alpargata Solidaria collective in a poor barrio of Caracas. Members pool their money and buy in bulk directly from farmers.

Venezuela faces a massive food crisis. Food is scarce and expensive for ordinary people, and its cost may rise as much as 1,000 per cent this year, the International Monetary Fund estimates. Last year's inflation rate was 800 per cent.

Across the country, spiralling protests in April against the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro have led to dozens of deaths and 1,300 arrests.

'Better quality and cheaper' vegetables

This group is one of many such Caracas collectives that organized themselves and are supported by Maduro's government.

Victor Zambrano, one of the group's leaders, said the collective of several hundred poor and middle-income people provides vegetables that will last a typical family several weeks and cost about one-quarter of the supermarket price.

"These vegetables are better quality and cheaper because we get them directly from the farmers," he said.

Lenin Brea, another collective leader, said, "It seems like a small effort in a big city like Caracas, but if we are able to reproduce this experience, we hope the price of fruits and vegetables will drop."

Brea expressed the government's view that the food crisis is caused by middlemen speculating at the expense of ordinary people. He argued that some businessmen are intentionally sabotaging the economy in order to undermine Maduro.

"Organized mafias have a monopoly on purchasing fruits and vegetables throughout the country," he said.

"Farmers are forced to sell to these mafias at undervalued prices. Middlemen sometimes mark up prices by 200 per cent."

Jose Guerra, a conservative member of the National Assembly and an economist, called such views "nonsense."

Middlemen are not the problem, he said. The food shortage exists because the Maduro government imposes price controls and limits the exchange of foreign currency. Such government controls distort the market and reduce supplies.

"We need to change the economic model to liberalize the market forces," he said in an interview. Then "you will see food and medicine everywhere."

Opposition leaders call for immediate humanitarian aide from the U.S. and other countries to supply Venezuela with food and medicine.

Freddy Guevara, vice-president of the National Assembly and a major opposition leader, admitted economic recovery will be difficult and will require large-scale corporate and public investment. "There's no way the country can recover without international financial aid," he said in an interview.

Harvard economists plan reform

Guevara supports efforts of a group of Harvard economists who are informally preparing plans for economic reform if the opposition takes power.

Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan minister of planning who teaches at Harvard, advocates large-scale loans from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other international Institutions. Venezuela, like Greece and Ukraine, needs international loans, he wrote in a commentary last year.

Guevara said, "We have a lot of people making plans so we can decide which options are better."

Members of the food collective and other government supporters say such neo-liberal policies will make conditions worse. They argue that in the 1990s, free market polices and excessive foreign debt produced inflation and increased poverty.

But at the food collective bagging effort, participants are focused more on the food delivery than plans for economic reform.

Zambrano said that while his collective began in response to the food crisis, he hopes it continues.

"This crisis is forcing us to evaluate how we purchase our food," he said. "I hope that learning process stays with us. The collectives are a good way to provide cheap and nutritious food."

But few Venezuelans expect the food crisis to end soon. Protestors remain in the streets calling for Maduro's resignation while members of the food collectives show support for the president by taking home more vegetables.