“Parte clave de la gira que yo arranco mañana (...) es para garantizar fortalecer nuevamente la reserva alimentaria de productos básicos de nuestro país a tres meses"So many things wrong already there, not to mention that he also accused the private agricultural sector of hoarding and sabotaging the transition to socialism. Thus I suppose that I need to write a primer on food shortages in Venezuela as the one I did a few days ago for media.
A key part of the tour I am starting tomorrow (...) is to guarantee to strengthen [sic] again the food reserve of basic products of our country for three months. (I am sorry, I cannot translate it any better, the guy cannot speak properly).
Is the food crisis real? Yes, we do not produce enough to feed half of the population and there is no sign of the crisis being resolved.
Why can't Venezuela produce enough food when its neighbors, Colombia, Brazil and Guyana, with similar climates and soils produce enough to export to Venezuela? The dependence on oil has induced ALL governments of Venezuela, since at least 1958, to consider agriculture as a secondary issue, only used for political purposes. Price controls, subsidies and quotas have been all invented BEFORE 1999. Chavismo merely exacerbated the situation through excessive use of these control tools combined with its chronic incompetence and its insatiable corruption. Without forgetting that chavismo got more money than all previous governments since 1958 combined to spend on food imports.
Why are chavismo controls on agriculture excessive? I will give you a simple example. Any person producing supplies that are directly included in any form of food, from livestock feed to a jar of margarine in your refrigerator needs to declare its production and where that one is sent. I know that because I have to fill such forms weekly. It works this way: through Internet I must declare everything, from the nature of the load to the specific ID of the driver and truck. Not forgetting the date at which the transport HAS to take place. Then the government will decide whether to approve that shipment. When it is raw materials it is usually approved without a hitch but when it is food for human consumption sometimes you are refused to serve a given district because for some unexplained reason the government considers it as already served in full and demands you to send it elsewhere. Like this complex procedure, prone to errors, I can list a score more of such regulations that do not exist in free market countries where store shelves cringe under the weight of goods.
Is hoarding a reality in Venezuela? Hoarding is a reality in ANY economy of the world, but it only happens with items of high value, small volumes, and usually under special economic circumstances. Hoarding almost never happens with commodities because not only the margin of profit there is not worth the trouble, but also their sheer volume makes its difficult to accomplish (except, note, for cartels like OPEC which hoards its oil under ground as it pleases). And hoarding never happens with perishables unless your war economy market ensures that customers will eat rotten food. Simply said, in a global economy hoarding is difficult, does not bring high dividends and can result in you losing your market share. Venezuela does not escape from these general considerations. Even if people were trying to hoard stuff you can realize yourself that with the controls I described above, hoarding can only be successful if the people in charge of the controls are cooperating with you for kickbacks. For all practical purpose, hoarding can take place in Venezuela only at the level of local groceries, not at the level of production facilities as the regime would like you to believe.
Why the regime uses the hoarding card again and again? In an exacerbated populist regime that goes from one economic error to another one, accusing the private sector is a good way to use the ignorance of the masses to focus the blame elsewhere. The fact of the matter is that it has been years since anyone got a solid sentence for any case of hoarding even if the regime was prompt in sending them to jail for a few days based on a superficial inspection of production and storage facilities. When details come clear, once the regime journalists shut up and the producer can finally speak, we discover that any "hoarder" that was inspected never had much in store, at most a week of inventories which is below what any serious business has in serious countries under normal conditions. But certainly, the picture of a week inventory of a depot in Valencia makes for a nice political picture for people who think the shelves content in local bodega is "a lot".
Surely the renewed accusation of Maduro about hoarding cannot be the whole story as to him looking for food in tiny Uruguay? Certainly not. Maduro is paying for 14 years of agricultural mismanagement that started as soon as Chavez assumed office. By 2000-2001 expropriations of productive lands started with the expected consequences. The regime, for all its efforts, cannot show an expropriated property that produces MORE than what it produced before expropriation. When Agroisleña, the main agricultural supplier, was expropriated in 2010, it created a void that has not been filled and that has hit productivity hard. And to lower confidence of the agricultural sector, Ivan Gil, who has failed at the head of Agroisleña/Agropatria is now the new sector minister.
Can we blame expropriation alone? No, even if in my opinion expropriation are the main cause of the agricultural failure of the regime, at least psychologically, there are other reasons that weigh heavily. Currency exchange controls have been a major problem because the deficit in currency to import supplies has created havoc with production plans. As a consequence, import deficiencies and minimum investment by the private producers still at work has created an agricultural sector at least a technological decade behind other agricultural giants like Brazil in Mercosur. One pathetic example is how Venezuela was still producing enough coffee in 1999 for its consumption and now has to import half of what it needs while coffee plantations are increasingly abandoned. Even Yvan Gil has been forced into recognizing the critical state of that sector! A sector unable to compete today with international standards of quality and yields.... while the regime happily props Nicaragua by buying all of its low quality coffee.
Surely, with such scarcity those who are still working must be minting coins? Of course not. The most pernicious governmental action is the preservation over a decade now of price controls which are not adjusted according to inflation to preserve at least a balance. Subsidies also are not enough when inflation goes faster than any subsidy adjustment. Apparently the chavista bureaucrats in Caracas, from their AC offices, since they know better what the price of the crops should be than the guys in the field, fighting back insects, sun and heat. The political necessity of slowing down inflation (which has failed miserably) has made the government to force producer to sell below cost certain goods. How can the regime expect people to work hard, to invest in technology to increase productivity when they cannot be rewarded, or pay for technology and supplies?
So, in the end, what is the truth about production? Impossible to say. Ivan Gil has the gumption to state that Venezuela produces more than in 1999 when Fedeagro says we are 30% down in recent years. The truth is that it is impossible to know exactly what is truly produced in Venezuela. The regime statistics cannot be audited (like the electoral numbers!). In addition, there are numerous reports of the regime importing stuff and labeling it Hecho en Venezuela. I personally know about imported raw sugar, finished to white here and thus claimed to be fully produced in Venezuela. Also, live cattle arriving at Puerto Cabello to be slaughtered in Venezuela leaves as carcasses Hecho en Venezuela. On the other hand Fedeagro has only access to what private producers tell them so they may be more negative than necessary. In short, for the last half decade it is impossible to know how bad the agricultural sector numbers are.
The crude reality. Agricultural production in Venezuela cannot properly grow for a variety of reasons that the regime is unwilling to tackle for political reasons and for corruption. In addition to adverse conditions (deficient road infrastructure, difficultly to find supplies, unruly workers no matter how much you pay them, if you can find them, problems with electricity supply, questioned property rights) the courageous producer has to face costs that do not exist in other countries (personal insecurity, unyielding bureaucracy, inflation now three years in a row above 20%) without the means to counter these costs and conditions (price control, interdiction to export any food item out of Venezuela). The only thing that has allowed some agricultural production to remain alive is that banks are forced to loan at preferential interests a portion of their portfolio to agribusiness Those loans whose interest rates are below inflation are the last life line left for the country side. And they benefit much more the larger concerns than the small producers which are squeezed out of the field inexorably.