Written by Anatoly Kurmanaev and Isayen Herrera
In Venezuela, where hunger is rampant, a farmer recently had to abandon his entire crop. Guiding a pair of oxen, he drew a wooden plow over his field, turning over thousands of shriveled carrots.
The trucks that would pick up his harvest never came, he said.
A fuel shortage has been gripping the country since May, bringing the nation’s already struggling agriculture industry to the brink of collapse and threatening more hunger and malnutrition in a nation where nearly half the population is eating fewer than three meals a day.
“It’s all lost,” the farmer, Joandry Santiago, said, pointing to the spoiled vegetables that cost him months of wasted labor.
Venezuela is an oil-rich nation. But years of mismanagement and corruption in the oil industry, worsened by U.S. sanctions, have dried up gasoline pumps at a crucial moment. First, the shortage prevented farmers like Santiago from getting their produce to markets. Now, it is making it hard for them to sow new crops.
The New York Times interviewed dozens of Venezuelan farmers. Nearly all have slashed their planting area this year and some are leaving their fields fallow — steps that are likely to deplete what is left of the food supply and lead even more Venezuelans to join the estimated 4 million who have fled the country.
The lack of fuel is the last straw after six years of economic crisis under President Nicolás Maduro, whose policies of price controls, expropriations and state-sanctioned embezzlement have wiped out the country’s private sector. His repression of political opponents and Socialist rhetoric have drawn the ire of the Trump administration, which has imposed crippling sanctions on top officials and key economic sectors.
The farmers said they have tried to produce despite scarce inputs, price controls, crime, inflation and collapsing demand.
Santiago’s municipality of Pueblo Llano, in the Andes Mountains of western Venezuela, has accounted for about 60% of all the potato and carrot production in Venezuela. But this year’s harvest is only half of 2018’s because of the gasoline shortage and other problems such as lack of seeds and fertilizer, according to the local farmers’ cooperative, La Trinidad.
Pueblo Llano’s downfall is repeated across the sector. In Venezuela’s vast plains farther east, sugar cane rots just yards from a refining mill and rice fields are left barren for the first time in 70 years because farmers don’t have fuel to transport their produce to distribution centers or seeds and fertilizers to plant new crops.
Venezuela’s main agricultural association, Fedeagro, estimates the area planted with the country’s main crops, corn and rice, will shrink about 50% this year. And the sugar output in the main producing state of Portuguesa is down to 5 million tons this year from 12 million in 2018, according to the local sugar cane growing association.
“The collapse is exponential,” said Fedeagro President Aquiles Hopkins. “The only possible explanation is that the government simply doesn’t care.”
Maduro has responded to the agricultural crisis by promising $35 million in new farming credits in May — a program Fedeagro says is pitifully small and benefits only producers close to the government.
Gasoline shortages in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves are only the latest manifestation of a collapse of services under Maduro, which has left millions without reliable supplies of electricity, water and cooking gas.
When a fuel import crunch coincided with refinery outages in mid-May, the country plunged into chaos. At least two people died waiting in the gasoline lines that followed.
Fuel supply has improved in most major cities since but remains scant in the western half of Venezuela, which accounts for the majority of food production. In the states of Tachira and Mérida, which grow most of the country’s vegetables, residents are limited to 8 gallons of gasoline a month.
On a visit to Pueblo Llano last month, 150 cars waited outside the closed gas station for the sixth straight day. Many of the drivers slept in their cars to prevent robberies, braving the frigid weather at an altitude of 7,500 feet. During the day, they walked backed to their farmsteads, a trip that in some cases took hours.
“While I’m sitting here in line, my produce is rotting in the fields,” farmer Richard Rondón said as he gave away summer squash as long as his arm from the back of his pickup truck to people passing by. “I got nothing to harvest with.”
The collapse of national food production will be nearly impossible to replace with food from abroad, economists say.
Venezuelan imports per capita in April fell to the lowest level since the 1950s, as the country ran out of hard currency amid a worsening economic crisis and the tightening of U.S. sanctions, according to Torino Capital, a brokerage firm. The country’s imports totaled just $303 million in April, down 92% from the same month in 2012.
“With this level of imports and given the destruction of Venezuela’s agricultural sector, it will be very difficult to avoid a significant deterioration in the availability of food,” said Francisco Rodríguez, Torino Capital’s chief economist.
The fuel crunch came at a time when many Venezuelans were already going hungry. In December, the month before America imposed its toughest sanctions, only 55% of Venezuelans ate three meals a day, according to Delphos, a local pollster.
The impact of gas shortages in the fields is already felt in the cities. The price of carrots, potatoes and plantains has more than doubled in Caracas’ main wholesale food market in the past month, overshooting even the country’s runaway inflation rate — estimated at about 26% a month — according to market traders.
A 120-pound sack of potatoes now costs five times the Venezuelan monthly minimum wage. Faced with skyrocketing food costs, the majority of Venezuelans have been reducing their consumption of vegetables in favor of less nutritious foods like pasta, rice and processed corn, which many get in the government’s subsidized food boxes.
Only a third of Venezuelan households bought vegetables other than cheap local root plants on weekly basis in 2017, according to the latest figures from annual nutritional survey co-written by Fundación Bengoa, a local nonprofit. Consumption of vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods has slid further since, contributing to “the hidden hunger of Venezuelans,” according to Maritza Landaeta, a researcher with the organization.
“It can’t be possible that the country is going without food and here we are with 6,000 hectares of vegetables, paralyzed,” said the head of Pueblo Llano’s La Trinidad cooperative, Augusto Alarcón. The area is equivalent to 15,000 acres.
Soaring vegetable prices for city dwellers are not benefiting the producers, but only reflect the soaring logistical costs.
The expense of transporting potatoes from Pueblo Llano to Caracas has tripled in the past few months, said Oswaldo García, one of the last surviving vegetable wholesalers in the region. While car fuel at the pump in Venezuela is nearly free, shortages force logistics companies to make up the shortfall on the black market, where a gallon of gasoline costs up to $6.50, or nearly three times the average price in the United States.
Two years ago, García operated a fleet of 70 trucks which shuttled 120 types of fresh vegetables across the country. Today, he has 15 trucks left.
To deal with the gasoline shortages, some food transporters have been switching to trucks powered by diesel, which has been better supplied. Gasoline, however, remains a crucial part of the farming chain of production, from the transportation and feeding of workers, to the operation of pumps and the sourcing machinery parts.
The shortage has hamstrung the time-sensitive rice and corn harvest in Portuguesa state. In May, it prevented farmers from planting a new crop before the rainy season.
“When it’s time to harvest again in four months, we will see the full cost of this” shortage, said Victor Sánchez, a farmer from the Portuguesa town of Turén.
His neighbor, Roberto Latini, came to Turén as a boy with his father from Italy in 1956, attracted like hundreds of his compatriots by the offer of free land in a model farming colony built by Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the country’s military ruler.
Last month, Latini left all his fields fallow for the first time.
“This decision has changed my life — it brings fear, anguish,” said Latini, who relies entirely on farming and only has enough savings to survive until the next planting season.