After re-election, Venezuela’s Maduro faces overseas condemnation

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro raises a finger as he is surrounded by supporters while speaking during a gathering after the results of the election were released, outside of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Alexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro faced international condemnation on Monday after his re-election in a vote foes denounced as a farce that cemented autocracy in the crisis-stricken oil-producing nation.

Maduro, 55, hailed his win in Sunday’s vote as a victory against “imperialism,” but his main rival alleged irregularities and refused to recognize the result.

Venezuela’s mainstream opposition boycotted the election, given that two of its most popular leaders were barred from running, authorities had banned the coalition and various of its parties from using their names, and the election board is run by Maduro loyalists. Turnout was under 50 percent.

Thousands of Maduro supporters, many wearing red berets, hugged and danced outside the Miraflores presidential palace, showered in confetti in the yellow, blue and red colors of the Venezuelan national flag.

“The revolution is here to stay!” a jubilant Maduro told the crowd, promising to prioritize economic recovery after five years of recession in the OPEC nation of 30 million people.

“Let’s go, Nico!” his supporters chanted until after midnight during party scenes in downtown Caracas.

“We mustn’t cave to any empire, or go running to the International Monetary Fund as Argentina did. The opposition must leave us alone to govern,” said government supporter Ingrid Sequera, 51. She wore a T-shirt with a logo featuring the eyes of Maduro’s socialist predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

Senior U.S. State Department officials declared Sunday’s vote a “sham” and repeated threats to impose sanctions on Venezuela’s all-important oil sector, which is already reeling from falling output, a brain-drain and creaking infrastructure.

Spain, which has led European Union criticism of Maduro, also weighed in. “Venezuela’s electoral process has not respected the most basic democratic standards. Spain and its European partners will study appropriate measures and continue to work to alleviate Venezuelans’ suffering,” tweeted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

In a blistering statement, the 14-nation “Lima Group” of countries in the Americas from Canada to Brazil, said it did not recognize the legitimacy of the vote and would be downgrading diplomatic relations.

The group deplored Venezuela’s “grave humanitarian situation” behind a migrant exodus, and promised to help coordinate with international financial bodies to crack down on corruption and block loans to the government.

However, regional leftist allies of Venezuela, from Cuba to Bolivia, sent their congratulations. China and Russia, which have both poured money into Venezuela in recent years, were also unlikely to join in the international condemnation.

‘TRAGIC CYCLE’ FOR VENEZUELA

The election board said Maduro won 5.8 million votes, versus 1.8 million for his chief challenger Henri Falcon, a former governor who broke with the opposition boycott to stand.

Turnout was 46 percent, the election board said, way down from the 80 percent at the last presidential vote in 2013. Suggesting turnout was even lower, an electoral board source told Reuters 32.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots by 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) as most polls shut.

The government used ample state resources during the campaign and state workers were pressured to vote.

Falcon called for a new vote, complaining about the government’s placing of nearly 13,000 pro-government stands called “red spots” close to polling stations nationwide.

Mainly poor Venezuelans lined up to scan state-issued “fatherland cards” at red tents after voting, in hope of receiving a “prize” promised by Maduro.

The “fatherland cards” are required to receive benefits including food boxes and money transfers.

Some anti-government activists said the opposition coalition should have fielded a candidate regardless of how uneven the playing field might be. But the opposition coalition, which has been divided for most of the duration of the ‘Chavismo’ movement founded by Chavez after he took office in 1999, appeared united after the vote and said its boycott strategy had paid off.

“I implore Venezuelans not to become demoralized, today Maduro is weaker than ever before. We’re in the final phase of a tragic cycle for our country. The fraud has been exposed and today the world will reject it,” tweeted opposition leader Julio Borges.

It was not yet clear what strategy the opposition would now adopt, but major protests seem unlikely given widespread disillusionment and fatigue. Caracas was calm and many of its streets were empty on Monday morning.

Protesters did, however, barricade some streets in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz, drawing teargas from National Guard soldiers, witnesses said.

ECONOMIC PRESSURES

Maduro, who faces a colossal task turning around Venezuela’s moribund economy, has offered no specifics on changes to two decades of state-led policies. The bolivar currency is down 99 percent over the past year and inflation is at an annual 14,000 percent, according to the National Assembly.

Furthermore, Venezuela’s multiple creditors are considering accelerating claims on unpaid foreign debt, while oil major ConocoPhillips has been taking aggressive action in recent weeks against state oil company PDVSA, as part of its claim for compensation over a 2007 nationalization of its assets in Venezuela.

Though increasingly shunned in the West, Maduro can at least count on the support of China and Russia, which have provided billions of dollars’ funding in recent years.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China believed the Venezuelan government and people could handle their own affairs and that everyone should respect the choice of the Venezuelan people.

Asked if China had sent congratulations to Maduro, he said China would “handle this in accordance with diplomatic convention,” but did not elaborate.

 

 

(Reporting by Aexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana; Luc Cohen in Caracas; Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago; Marco Aquino in Lima; and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Angus Berwick and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry)

Exclusive: As Venezuelans suffer, Maduro buys foreign oil to subsidize Cuba

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Amuay refinery complex which belongs to the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA in Punto Fijo, Venezuela November 17, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Marianna Parraga and Jeanne Liendo

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Venezuela’s state-run oil firm PDVSA has bought nearly $440 million worth of foreign crude and shipped it directly to Cuba on friendly credit terms – and often at a loss, according to internal company documents reviewed by Reuters.

The shipments are the first documented instances of the OPEC nation buying crude to supply regional allies instead of selling them oil from its own vast reserves.

Venezuela made the discounted deliveries, which have not been previously reported, despite its dire need for foreign currency to bolster its collapsing economy and to import food and medicine amid widespread shortages.

The open-market oil purchases to subsidize one of Venezuela’s few remaining allies underscores its increasing global isolation and the disintegration of its energy sector under socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

The purchases came as Venezuela’s crude production hit a 33-year low in the first quarter – down 28 percent in 12 months. Its refineries are operating at a third of capacity, and its workers are resigning by the thousands.

(For a graphic on Venezuela’s rising oil imports and falling exports, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2wHCTUF )

PDVSA bought the crude for up to $12 per barrel more than it priced the same oil when it shipped to Cuba, according to prices on internal documents reviewed by Reuters. But Cuba may never pay cash for the cargoes because Venezuela has long accepted goods and services from Cuba in return for oil under a pact signed in 2000 by late presidents Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.

PDVSA, the Venezuela government and the Cuba government did not respond to requests for comment.

Venezuela’s government has previously said it only imports oil to blend with its own tar-like crude to improve quality and create an exportable product, or to feed its refinery in Curacao. But hundreds of PDSVA documents examined by Reuters detailing imports and exports, dated from January 2017 to May of this year, show the company is now buying crude at market prices to deliver to allies – in shipments that never pass through Venezuela.

The subsidized deliveries are aimed at maintaining political support from Cuba, one of a dwindling group of Venezuela allies, according to diplomats, politicians and PDVSA executives.

“Maduro is giving away everything he can because these countries’ backing, especially from Cuba, is all the political support he has left,” said a former top Venezuelan government official who declined to be identified.

Caracas has come under increasing international pressure as the United States, the European Union and Canada have sanctioned Venezuela for what they see as Maduro’s attempts to cement a dictatorship.

As Venezuela spends on oil imports, it has imported less of everything else its citizens desperately need. Venezuela’s spending on non-oil imports plunged from nearly $46 billion in 2011 to $6 billion in 2017, according Venezuela Central Bank data and Ecoanalitica, a Caracas-based economic research organization.

The oil PDVSA procured for Cuba was Russian Urals crude, the documents show, a variety well-suited for Cuban refineries constructed from Soviet-era equipment.

PDVSA bought the crude from Chinese, Russian and Swiss firms – not for cash, but a pledge that PDVSA would deliver other oil shipments later, the documents show.

That adds to Venezuela’s already towering debts of oil to state-owned firms in Russia and China, which together have extended Venezuela’s government more than $60 billion in oil-for-loan deals that have propped up its budget amid declining exports and lower oil prices.

“It’s nonsense to import oil to keep subsidized exports flowing,” said Ecoanalitica President Asdrubal Oliveros.

PETRO-DIPLOMACY

Venezuela’s socialist government has long used oil for domestic and international political ends, subsidizing goods and services at home and currying favor across the region with oil deliveries on generous terms.

Venezuela’s oil supply arrangements have helped soften international political censure of Maduro’s government.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which includes most Western Hemisphere nations, last year took up a motion seeking to pressure Venezuela to hold free elections, liberate political prisoners and declare a humanitarian crisis.

The effort was defeated when 12 countries that have received regular oil shipments from Venezuela in recent years – about a third of the OAS membership – opposed it or refused to vote. Eventually, the OAS passed a watered-down motion urging free and fair elections.

Venezuela has avoided formal OAS condemnation “thanks to the support of the bloc of Caribbean nations that have benefited from its subsidized oil and development programs for years,” said Michael Fitzpatrick, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said on April 30 during a talk at the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank in Washington.

Most of those countries are members of Venezuela’s Petrocaribe trade pact, launched in 2005, which has granted up to 16 Caribbean and Central American states with oil supplies on favorable terms.

OAS President Luis Almagro declined to comment through press office representative Monica Reyes.

El Salvador’s Economy Minister, Luz Estrella Rodriguez, said Petrocaribe and other pacts promoted by Venezuela had played an important role in her country’s development.

“Our country is very grateful,” she said. “The government of El Salvador, of course, is a friend and an ally of the Venezuelan government.”

El Salvador refused to vote last year on the OAS motion to condemn Venezuela.

Venezuela also supplied fuel last year to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Dominica, the documents show.

In total, members of oil trade pacts with Venezuela last year received at least 103,000 bpd of crude and refined products from PDVSA, the documents show, or about 6 percent of Venezuela’s exports.

FALLING OUTPUT, SHRINKING IMPORTS

The falling output of Venezuela’s refineries has also left the country increasingly dependent on fuel imports to meet domestic consumption.

The internal PDVSA data reviewed by Reuters shows Venezuela last year purchased some 180,000 barrels per day of foreign crude and refined products from PetroChina, Rosneft, Lukoil, Reliance Industries and other suppliers, 17 percent more than in 2016.

Those companies did not respond to requests for comment.

The purchases totaled more $4 billion, according to PDVSA records.

Last year, total oil-industry purchases, including equipment and services, consumed 45 percent of Venezuela’s total import spending, up from 13 percent in 2011, Ecoanalitica data shows. Energy imports totaled $5.4 billion out of $11.9 billion.

The resulting scarcity of food, medicine and employment has caused thousands of citizens to flee Venezuela. The pay of PDVSA workers now can’t cover the barest essentials because of the collapse of its currency, the bolivar.

“A worker’s salary is not even enough for a box of eggs,” said Hector Bertis, a PDVSA worker and union leader. “We go to the bank, and they give us 10,000 bolivars – less than what a transportation fare costs.”

(Reporting by Marianna Parraga in Houston and Jeanne Liendo in Calgary; additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Washington, Paula Rosales in San Salvador and Gary McWilliams in Houston; Editing by Gary McWilliams, Simon Webb and Brian Thevenot)

Venezuela’s Maduro defies foreign censure, offers ‘prize’ to voters

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a campaign rally in La Guaira, Venezuela May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) – President Nicolas Maduro scoffed at international criticism of Venezuela’s upcoming May 20 vote in which he is seeking re-election and offered a prize for those who vote with a state-issued card.

Venezuela’s mainstream opposition is boycotting the election on the grounds it is rigged in favor of the 55-year-old socialist incumbent. The United States, European Union and various Latin American neighbors have also slammed it as unfair.

“So they’re not going to recognize Maduro around the world. What the hell do I care?” Maduro said at an election rally in La Guaira, on the coast outside Caracas, late on Wednesday. “What the hell do I care what Europe and Washington say?”

Maduro, who is casting his re-election campaign as a battle against imperialist powers bent on seizing Venezuela’s oil wealth, has only one serious rival: Henri Falcon, 56, a former state governor. Falcon has broken with the opposition coalition’s boycott of the vote, believing anger at a economic crisis will win him votes.

OPEC member Venezuela is in a fifth year of punishing recession, inflation is the highest in the world, oil production is at a three-decade low, shortages of food and medicines are widespread, and millions are skipping meals.

Some polls show Falcon more popular than Maduro, who narrowly won election to replace Hugo Chavez in 2013.

But the opposition abstention campaign, presence of Maduro loyalists in key institutions including the election board, and vote-winning power of state welfare programs like housing and food giveaways makes a Falcon victory look a tall order.

In his speech, Maduro told supporters that all those who vote showing a government-issued “Fatherland Card,” which is needed to access certain welfare programs, probably would receive “a really good prize.”

He did not give details but critics say that, and other pre-election cash and other bonuses via the card, is akin to vote bribery. Voting in Venezuela is secret but state workers say they are constantly pressured to support the government.

FALCON SEEKS ALLIES

Falcon, a former soldier, has been largely shunned by Venezuela’s best-known opposition leaders but this week received the support of at least one high-profile leader, Enrique Marquez, who is vice president of A New Time party.

He also has been wooing twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles to join his campaign but without success so far. Capriles, and another popular opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, are both barred from standing in the election.

Maduro says Venezuela’s election system is the cleanest in the world but even the official operator of the voting platform, UK-based Smartmatic, denounced fraud in an election last August. Little is known about the Argentine company that has replaced it for this month’s election.

If Maduro does win re-election, attention will turn immediately to whether he plans to use the political breathing space to deepen an internal purge of rivals, and if the United States will carry out a threat to impose oil sanctions.

President Donald Trump’s administration already has imposed some financial and individual sanctions on Maduro’s government, accusing senior officials of rights abuses and corruption.

Pro-boycott opposition activists have been stepping up their campaign in recent days with scattered protests around the country. Numbers, however, have been thin – a far cry from the mass anti-Maduro protests of 2017.

“Those who participate with Maduro in the May 20 farce, including Henri Falcon and (evangelical pastor) Javier Bertucci, have split with Venezuelan patriots and democrats,” an opposition grouping called the Wide Front said in a statement.

“By recognizing false results, they will become a collaborationist opposition recognized by the regime so it can outlaw and persecute democratic society.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bill Trott)

Venezuelan schools emptying as Chavez legacy under threat

Juliani Caceres, grand daughter of Carmen Penaloza, have rice and platain for lunch at her home in San Cristobal, Venezuela April 5, 2018. Picture taken April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

By Vivian Sequera and Francisco Aguilar

SOCOPO, Venezuela (Reuters) – It is mid-morning on a weekday yet all that can be heard in the once-bustling corridors of the Orlando Garcia state primary school is the swish of palm trees outside in the wind.

The white, tin-roof building in the town of Socopo once held nearly 400 children, yet closed two months ago in a protest by teachers and parents at low salaries and lack of school lunches.

Nearly 3 million children are missing some or all classes in Venezuela, according to a study by universities, in a depressing knock-on from a deepening economic crisis that could cause long-lasting damage to the South American country.

Venezuela has about 8 million school children in total, and free education was a cornerstone of ex-President Hugo Chavez’s 1999-2013 socialist rule of the OPEC nation.

Now, along with hospitals and other flagship welfare projects, the education sector is in crisis, heaping pain on Venezuelans and eroding Chavez’s legacy as his successor Nicolas Maduro seeks re-election in a May 20 presidential vote.

In Socopo, in the agricultural savannah state of Barinas that was once home to Chavez, half of the 20 public schools, including Orlando Garcia, closed completely in February, mid-term.

They have since reopened, but, along with the rest of Barinas’ approximately 1,600 public schools, they are operating just three days a week.

Venezuela’s economic implosion has led to millions suffering food shortages, unable to buy basic goods. Prices double every two or three months and the currency is worth less every day.

Education experts fear a stunted generation.

“Hungry people aren’t able to teach or learn,” said Victor Venegas, president of the Barinas chapter of the national Federation of Education Workers.

“We’re going to end up with a nation of illiterates.”

A major bonus for school children was once free food but state food programs are now intermittent, and when lunches do come, they are often small and missing protein.

The problems are felt across the country, with children often falling unwell or dizzy due to poor nutrition.

“We were singing the national anthem and I felt nauseous. I’d only eaten an arepa (a local cornbread) that day, and I fainted,” recounted Juliani Caceres, an 11-year-old student in Tachira state on the border with Colombia.

“BACK TO THE 19TH CENTURY”

While critics lambast him for incompetence and corruption, Maduro blames Venezuela’s crisis on Washington and the opposition, accusing them of waging an “economic war.”

Officials constantly downplay the social problems.

“There may be weaknesses in the food program in some municipalities, but we are always attentive and looking to improve the situation,” Education Minister Elias Jaua said in an interview in Barinas.

The government insists education remains a priority and says that 75 percent of the national budget goes to the social sector.

“Amid the economic war, the fall of oil prices, international harassment and financial persecution, not a single school has closed,” Maduro said at a Caracas rally last month, referring to U.S. sanctions against Venezuela.

His Barinas governor, Argenis Chavez, however, acknowledged the closures in Socopo, blaming them on the opposition as part of a plan to sabotage the upcoming election.

Despite Venezuela’s plethora of problems and Maduro’s personal unpopularity, he is widely expected to win re-election, given that the opposition’s most popular leaders are banned from standing and the main anti-Maduro coalition is boycotting the vote on grounds it is rigged in advance.

One opposition leader, former state governor Henri Falcon, has broken with the boycott and is hoping Venezuelans’ fury at their economic woes will translate into votes for him.

According to the opposition, prices rose more than 8,000 percent in the 12 months to March.

Teachers in the public sector earn around four times the minimum wage of just over a dollar a month at the black market exchange rate. That is nowhere near what Venezuelans need to feed themselves and their families.

“With my last paycheck, I was able to buy a kilo of meat and a kilo of sugar,” said Roxi Gallardo, a 35-year-old teacher in the Andean city of San Cristobal who, like so many others, is looking to leave Venezuela.

In addition to food shortages, school communities are suffering from a collapse in transport systems and inability to pay bus fares, plus frequent water and power-cuts.

“We’re heading back to the 19th century,” said Luis Bravo, an education researcher at Caracas’ Central University.

Doctor Marianella Herrera, at the same university, said the combination of inadequate nutrition and patchy education would cost Venezuela dearly in the future, depriving it of skilled workers.

“The longer this goes on without reversing the situation, the tougher it will be,” she said.

Eudys Olivier, a 39-year-old homemaker in a poor area of San Felix in southern Bolivar state, and her two children, live off her husband’s bakery wage of just under $5 per month.

“If there isn’t enough food, I prefer to leave the children at home,” she said. “I want them to go to school every day because it’s their future. But I can’t send them hungry.”

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Francisco Aguilar, Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Bolívar and Anggy Polanco in Tachira; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

In besieged Syrian enclave, locals say unsafe even to bury the dead

FILE PHOTO: A boy is seen in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh/File Photo

AMMAN/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of families are sleeping in the open in the streets of the biggest town of Syria’s rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave, where there is no longer any room in packed cellars to shelter from government bombardment, local authorities said.

The army’s onslaught in eastern Ghouta, backed by air and artillery strikes, has killed about 1,160 people since Feb. 18, a war monitor said, as President Bashar al-Assad seeks to crush the last big rebel stronghold near the capital Damascus.

Thousands of families have fled from the front lines to Douma, hoping to escape bombing. The town’s opposition-controlled authorities said on Monday the situation there had become “catastrophic”, with no more room below ground for civilians to hide.

At least 70 people had been buried in a park because air strikes made it unsafe to reach the cemetery on the outskirts.

Government forces have now captured more than half the rebel enclave, entirely besieging Douma and the large town of Harasta, cutting them off from each other and neighbouring areas with advances on Saturday and Sunday.

“After more than 20 days of the barbaric campaign and mass annihilation of eastern Ghouta.. this has led to a deterioration of the humanitarian and food situation to a catastrophic level,” Douma’s town council said in a statement.

In video filmed inside the town, one man cowering in a heavily damaged shelter in Douma said: “It is completely uninhabitable. It is not even safe to put chickens in. There is no bathroom, just one toilet, and there are 300 people.”

He declined to give his name for fear of reprisals if the army retakes the area.

Douma residents said dozens of people were trapped alive under rubble, with rescuers unable to reach them due to the intensity of the raids. They also said the loss of remaining farmland to Assad forces would worsen the plight of civilians.

State television broadcasts from the government-controlled side of the battlefront showed dark grey clouds of smoke billowing from several places across a landscape of shattered buildings. A minaret had lost a chunk from one side of its slender tower. In the background, heavy vehicles could be heard rumbling past and the deep crump of explosions echoed around.

EVACUATION DEAL

Jaish al-Islam, one of eastern Ghouta’s main rebel groups, said on Monday it had reached an agreement with the government’s ally Russia to evacuate wounded people, after communicating with Moscow through the United Nations.

The assault is one of the heaviest in the war, which enters its eighth year this week. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said on Monday for the first time that the death toll had passed half a million people.

It has confirmed the deaths of 511,000 people, it said, and has the names of more than 350,000 of them. About 85 percent were killed by government forces and their allies, it said.

Eastern Ghouta has been besieged for years after many of its residents joined the initial protests against Assad’s rule in 2011 that triggered the slide into civil war. The United Nations says 400,000 people live in the enclave, already suffering shortages of food and medicine even before the massive assault began in mid-February.

Assad and his ally Russia say the assault on eastern Ghouta is needed to end the rule of Islamist insurgents over the civilian population and to stop mortar fire on nearby Damascus.

The ferocity of the assault has prompted condemnation from Western countries and calls from U.N. agencies for a ceasefire. Russia and Damascus say a ceasefire ordered by the U.N. Security Council does not protect the fighters in eastern Ghouta, arguing that they are members of banned terrorist groups.

The United Nations has warned of dire shortages of food and medicine, where international deliveries have long been erratic and often obstructed before they could reach the enclave. A convoy of relief trucks crossed front lines into eastern Ghouta on Friday and unloaded all its food despite the fighting.

The expulsion of the rebels from eastern Ghouta would represent their biggest defeat since they lost their enclave in Aleppo in December 2016. They still control large areas in the northwest and southwest and a few scattered pockets elsewhere but have been driven from most major population centres.

Across eastern Ghouta heavy aerial strikes continued on the towns of Irbeen, Harasta and other residential areas on Monday, state media said. [L8N1QT07W]

(Reporting by a reporter in eastern Ghouta, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Angus McDowall and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Tom Perry, Gareth Jones and Peter Graff)

For poor Venezuelans, a box of food may sway vote for Maduro

Osiris (L), daughter of Viviana Colmenares (C), feeds her sister Ornella in a community diner at the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela February 22, 2018. Picture taken February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Andreina Aponte and Ana Isabel Martinez

CARACAS (Reuters) – A bag of rice on a hungry family’s kitchen table could be the key to Nicolas Maduro retaining the support of poor Venezuelans in May’s presidential election.

For millions of Venezuelans suffering an unprecedented economic crisis, a monthly handout of a box of heavily-subsidized basic food supplies by Maduro’s unpopular government has offered a tenuous lifeline in their once-prosperous OPEC nation.

The 55-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez introduced the so-called CLAP boxes in 2016 in a signature policy of his rule, continuing the socialist government’s strategy of seeking public support with cash bonuses and other giveaways.

Now, running for re-election on May 20, Maduro says the CLAPs are his “most powerful weapon” to combat an “economic war” being waged by Washington, which brands him a “dictator” and has imposed sanctions.

Mariana, a single mother who lives in the poor hillside neighborhood of Petare in the capital Caracas, says the handouts will decide her vote.

“I and other women I know are going to vote for Maduro because he’s promising to keep giving CLAPs, which at least help fix some problems,” said the 30-year-old cook, who asked not to give her surname for fear of losing the benefit.

“When you earn minimum wage, which doesn’t cover exorbitant prices, the box helps.”

Maduro’s rule since 2013 has coincided with a deep recession caused by a plunge in global oil prices and failed state-led economic policies.

Yet the worse the economy gets, the more dependent some poor Venezuelans become on the state.

Life in the South American country’s poor ‘barrios’ revolves around the CLAP boxes. According to the government, six million families receive the benefit, from a population of around 30 million people.

Venezuelans, many of whom are undernourished, anxiously wait for their monthly delivery, and a thriving black market has sprung up to sell CLAP products.

The government sources almost all the CLAP goods from abroad, especially from Mexico, since Venezuela’s food production has shriveled and currency controls restrict private imports.

Critics, including Maduro’s main challenger for the May 20 vote, Henri Falcon, say the CLAPs are a cynical form of political patronage and are rife with corruption.

Erratic supply and control of distribution by government-affiliated groups have sown resentment among others.

“I can’t count on it. Sometimes it comes, sometimes not,” said Viviana Colmenares, 24, an unemployed mother of six struggling to get by in Petare.

The contents of a CLAP box, a Venezuelan government handout of basic food supplies, is pictured at Viviana Colmenares' house in the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela February 23, 2018. Picture taken February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The contents of a CLAP box, a Venezuelan government handout of basic food supplies, is pictured at Viviana Colmenares’ house in the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela February 23, 2018. Picture taken February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“INSTRUMENT OF THE REVOLUTION”

Stamped with the faces of Maduro and Chavez, the CLAP boxes usually contain rice, pasta, grains, cooking oil, powdered milk, canned tuna and other basic goods. Recipients pay 25,000 bolivars per box, or about $0.12 at the black market rate.

That is a godsend in a country where the minimum monthly wage is less than $2 at that rate – and would be swallowed up by two boxes of eggs or a small tin of powdered milk.

Inflation, at more than 4,000 percent annually according to opposition data, is pulverizing household income.

The administration of the CLAP – the Local Supply and Production Committees – does not hide its political motivation.

“The CLAPs are here to stay. They are an instrument of the revolution,” said Freddy Bernal, CLAP chief administrator.

“It has helped us stop a social explosion and enabled us to win elections and to keep winning them,” he told Reuters, referring to government victories in 2017 local polls.

Sometimes, though, the tactic backfires, as it did when promised free pork failed to arrive over Christmas, prompting street protests.

Maduro’s inability to halt rising hunger has jarred with the experience of many under Chavez, who won the presidency in 1998 and improved Venezuela’s social indicators with oil-fueled welfare policies.

Even though Maduro’s approval rating is only around 26 percent, according to one recent poll, his re-election looks likely as Venezuela’s opposition coalition is boycotting the vote on accusations it is rigged.

His most popular rivals are banned from standing and the election board favors the government.

Former state governor Falcon has broken with the coalition to stand. One survey by pollster Datanalisis in February showed that in a two-way race, he would defeat Maduro by 45.8 percent to 32.2 percent of likely voters.

Falcon’s critics counter that those numbers mean nothing in the face of electoral irregularities that could arbitrarily tip the balance in favor of Maduro.

Several other minor figures have registered for the single-round election, but have little chance of making an impact.

‘CAN’T DEPEND ON THE BOX’

Juan Luis Hernandez, a food specialist at the Central University of Venezuela, estimates the country generates just 44 percent of the basic food supplies it produced in 2008.

Meanwhile, food imports fell 67 percent between the start of 2016 and the end of 2017 as the crisis bit, he said.

Almost two-thirds of Venezuelans surveyed in a university study published in February said they had lost on average 11 kilograms (24 lbs) in body weight last year. Eighty-seven percent were assessed to live in poverty.

The same study found that seven out of 10 Venezuelans had received CLAPs.

“They (the government) don’t care about the food issue, just about getting people something to eat while they get through the elections,” said Susana Raffalli, a consultant with charity Caritas.

Some Venezuelans fear they would be found out should they vote against Maduro and be punished by no longer receiving food bags.

Already handouts are far from guaranteed.

A dozen recipients told Reuters that often they arrived half-full and would only come every few months. Outside of the capital Caracas, delivery was even more sporadic.

“I can’t depend on the box, otherwise I would die from hunger,” said Yuni Perez, a 48-year-old rubbish collector and mother of three.

Perez, who lives in a ramshackle house made from breeze blocks and corrugated steel at the top of Petare, said a CLAP box provided her family with food for a week. Often they would receive one every two months.

When her family is short of food, she hunts for leftovers dumped on the side of Petare’s winding streets. She said she had found several newborn babies discarded in the gutter, which she attributed to mothers unable to face providing food for another child.

Another Petare resident, mother-of-three Yaneidy Guzman said she dropped from 68kg to 48kg last year, despite receiving the CLAP.

“At least for 10 days you don’t have to think about finding food,” the 32-year-old said of the handouts, her cheekbones protruding from her face.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

‘Migrate or die’: Venezuelan migrants flood into Colombia despite crackdown

Venezuelans line the street at the border between Venezuela and Colombia, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

By Julia Symmes Cobb and Anggy Polanco

MAICAO/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – The desert wind whipping their faces, hundreds of Venezuelan migrants lugging heavy suitcases and overstuffed backpacks trudge along the road to the Colombian border town of Maicao beneath the blazing sun.

The broken line snakes back 8 miles (13 km) to the border crossing at Paraguachon, where more than a hundred Venezuelans wait in the heat outside the migration office.

Money changers sit at tables stacked with wads of Venezuelan currency, made nearly worthless by hyperinflation under President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.

The remote outpost on the arid La Guajira peninsula on Colombia’s Caribbean coast marks a frontline in Latin America’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Venezuelans pray as they gather at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Venezuelans pray as they gather at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

The Venezuelans arrive hungry, thirsty and tired, often unsure where they will spend the night, but relieved to have escaped the calamitous situation in their homeland.

They are among more than half a million Venezuelans who have fled to Colombia, many illegally, hoping to escape grinding poverty, rising violence and shortages of food and medicine in their once-prosperous, oil exporting nation.

“It’s migrate and give it a try or die of hunger there. Those are the only two options,” said Yeraldine Murillo, 27, who left her six-year-old son behind in the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, some 56 miles (90 km) across the border.

“There, people eat from the trash. Here, people are happy just to eat,” said Murillo, who hopes to find work in Colombia’s capital Bogota and send for her son.

The exodus from Venezuela – on a scale echoing the departure of Myanmar’s Rohingya people to Bangladesh – is stirring alarm in Colombia. A weary migration official said as many as 2,000 Venezuelans enter Colombia legally through Paraguachon each day, up from around 1,200 late last year.

Under pressure from overcrowded frontier towns such as Maicao, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced a tightening of border controls this month, deploying 3,000 additional security personnel.

But the measures are unlikely to stem the flow of illegal migrants pouring across the 1,379-mile (2,219 km) frontier.

At Paraguachon, where a lack of effective border controls has long allowed smuggling to thrive, officials estimate 4,000 people cross illegally daily.

“We left houses, cars. We left everything: money in the bank,” said former electronics salesman Rudy Ferrer, 51, who sleeps outside a warehouse in Maicao. He estimates there are 1,000 Venezuelans sleeping on the town’s streets every night.

‘THE MADURO DIET’

Some 3 million Venezuelans – or a tenth of the population – have left Venezuelan since late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez started his Socialist revolution in 1999.

Despite four months of violent anti-government protests last year, Chavez’s hand-picked successor Maduro is expected to win a fresh six-year term at elections on April 22. The opposition, whose most popular leaders have been banned from running, is boycotting the vote.

Mechanic Luis Arellano and his children were among the lucky ones who found beds at a shelter in Maicao run by the Catholic diocese with help from the U.N. refugee agency. The 58-year-old said his children’s tears of hunger drove him to flee Venezuela.

“It was 8 p.m. and they were asking for lunch and dinner and I had nothing to give them,” he said, spooning rice into his 7-year-old daughter’s mouth.

Children from Venezuela eat a meal at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Children from Venezuela eat a meal at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

“This isn’t the size they should be,” Arellano said, raising his children’s spindly arms.

Migrants told Reuters they were paying up to 400,000 bolivars for a kilo of rice in Venezuela. The official monthly minimum wage is 248,510 bolivares – around $8 at the official exchange rate, or $1.09 on the black market.

Food shortages, which many migrants jokingly refer to as the “Maduro diet”, have left people noticeably thinner than in photos taken years earlier for their identification cards.

The shelter – where bunk beds line the walls of the bedrooms – provides food and shelter for three days and, for those joining family already in Colombia, a bus ticket onwards.

It will soon have capacity for 140 people a night – a fraction of the daily arrivals.

Colombia is letting the migrants access public health care and send their children to state schools. Santos is asking for international help to foot the bill, which the government has said runs to tens of millions of dollars.

‘NO WORK’ FOR VENEZUELANS

At another shelter in the border city of Cucuta, some 250 miles (400 km) to the south, people regularly spend the night on cardboard outside, hoping places will free up.

The largest city along the frontier, Cucuta has borne the brunt of the arriving migrants. About 30,000 people cross the pedestrian bridge that connects the city with Venezuela on daily entry passes to shop for food.

Conditions are desperate for migrants like Jose Molina, a 48-year-old butcher unable to find work after leaving his wife and son in Venezuela’s northern Carabobo state four months ago.

People sit on a makeshift bed, on a street, where Venezuelan migrants gather to spend the night, in Maicao, Colombia February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

People sit on a makeshift bed, on a street, where Venezuelan migrants gather to spend the night, in Maicao, Colombia February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

“I feel so depressed,” said Molina, his face puffed and tired after sleeping outside a church. “I got sick from eating rotten potatoes but I was hungry so I had to eat them.”

Molina is so hopeless he has considered returning home.

“My wife says everything’s getting worse and it’s best to wait,” he said. “I don’t want to be a burden to them. They don’t have enough to eat themselves.”

While many feel a duty to welcome the migrants, in part because Venezuela accepted Colombian refugees during that country’s long civil war, others fear losing jobs to Venezuelans being paid under the table.

After locals held a small anti-Venezuelan protest last month, police evicted 200 migrants who were living on a sports field, deporting many of them.

Migrants are verbally abused by some Colombians who refuse them work when they hear their accents, said Flavio Gouguella, 28, from Carabobo.

“Are you a Veneco? Then no work,” he said, using a derogatory term for Venezuelans.

In Maicao, locals also worry about an increase in crime and support police efforts to clear parks and sidewalks.

They already have to cope with smuggled subsidized Venezuelan goods damaging local commerce, and have grown tired of job-seekers and lending their bathrooms to migrants.

Spooked by police raids, migrants in Maicao have abandoned the parks and bus stations where they had makeshift camps, opting to sleep outside shuttered shops. Female migrants who spoke to Reuters said were often solicited for sex.

Despairing of finding work, some entrepreneurial migrants turn the nearly-worthless bolivar currency into crafts, weaving handbags from the bills and selling them in Maicao’s park.

A man sells bags made out of Venezuelan banknotes, in Maicao, Colombia February 16, 2018. Picture taken February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

A man sells bags made out of Venezuelan banknotes, in Maicao, Colombia February 16, 2018. Picture taken February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

“This was made from 80,000 bolivars,” said 23-year-old Anthony Morillo, holding up a square purse featuring bills with the face of South America’s 19th century liberation hero Simon Bolivar. “It’s not worth half a bag of rice.”

($1 = 28,927.5000 bolivar)

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Maicao and Paraguachon and Anggy Polanco in Cucuta and La Parada; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy, Daniel Flynn and Daniel Wallis)

Syria’s Ghouta residents ‘wait to die’ as more bombs fall

A person inspects damaged building in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Residents of Syria’s eastern Ghouta district said they were waiting their “turn to die” on Wednesday, amid one of the most intense bombardments of the war by pro-government forces on the besieged, rebel-held enclave near Damascus.

At least 27 people died and more than 200 were injured on Wednesday. At least 299 people have been killed in the district in the last three days, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Another 13 bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the Observatory reported.

The eastern Ghouta, a densely populated agricultural district on the Damascus outskirts, is the last major area near the capital still under rebel control. Home to 400,000 people, it has been besieged by government forces for years.

A massive escalation in bombardment, including rocket fire, shelling, air strikes and helicopter-dropped barrel bombs, since Sunday has become one of the deadliest of the Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year.

Reuters photographs taken in eastern Ghouta on Wednesday showed men searching through the rubble of smashed buildings, carrying blood-smeared people to hospital and cowering in debris-strewn streets.

The United Nations has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes.

The pace of the strikes appeared to slacken overnight, but its intensity resumed later on Wednesday morning, the Observatory said. Pro-government forces fired hundreds of rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the district’s towns and villages.

“We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say,” said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town Douma. They fear the terror of the bombardment will bring her into labor early, he said.

“Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Wednesday for humanitarian access to Ghouta, especially to reach wounded people in critical need of treatment.

“The fighting appears likely to cause much more suffering in the days and weeks ahead,” said Marianne Gasser, ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria. “This is madness and it has to stop.”

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, a group of foreign agencies that fund hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria, said eight medical facilities in eastern Ghouta had been attacked on Tuesday.

WARNINGS

The Syrian government and its ally Russia, which has backed Assad with air power since 2015, say they do not target civilians. They also deny using the inaccurate explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the United Nations.

The Observatory said many of the planes over Ghouta appear to be Russian. Syrians say they can distinguish between Russian and Syrian planes because the Russian aircraft fly higher.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday described as “groundless” accusations that Russia bears some of the blame for civilian deaths in eastern Ghouta.

A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of Assad’s government told Reuters overnight the bombing aims to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus with mortars. It may be followed by a ground campaign.

“The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing,” the commander said.

Rebels have also been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding four people on Wednesday, state media reported. Rebel mortars killed at least six people on Tuesday.

“Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta,” Russia’s Defence Ministry said late on Tuesday.

Eastern Ghouta is one of a group of “de-escalation zones” under a diplomatic ceasefire initiative agreed by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran with Turkey which has backed the rebels. But a rebel group formerly affiliated with al Qaeda is not included in the truces and it has a small presence there.

Conditions in eastern Ghouta, besieged since 2013, had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assault, as shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities caused suffering and illness.

(Reporting By Dahlia Nehme, Angus McDowall and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

More bombs hit Syria’s Ghouta after heaviest death toll in years

A helicopter is seen flying over the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pro-government forces pounded Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, killing at least 66 people after the enclave’s heaviest one-day death toll in three years, a monitoring group said.

Sparking an international outcry, the surge in air strikes, rocket fire, and shelling has killed more than 210 adults and children in the rebel pocket near Damascus since late on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

France described the government bombing as a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military. Damascus says it only targets militants.

Recent violence in the besieged suburb is part of a wider surge in fighting on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad’s military pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

A U.N. coordinator called for an immediate ceasefire on Monday and said that Ghouta was “spiraling out of control” after an “extreme escalation in hostilities”.

In Geneva, the U.N. children’s agency expressed outrage at the casualties among the enclave’s children, saying it had run out of words.

Those killed since the escalation began on Sunday include 54 children. Another 850 people have been injured, the Britain-based Observatory said.

In Brussels, Syrian opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri – a delegation head at stalled U.N. peace talks – told the European Union the intensified attacks consisted a “war crime”, and pleaded for more international pressure on Assad to stop.

WARPLANES IN THE SKY

Rescuers said the air raids create “a state of terror” among residents in eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations says nearly 400,000 people live. The pocket of satellite towns and farms, under government siege since 2013, is the last major rebel bastion near the capital.

Factions in Ghouta fired mortars at Damascus on Tuesday, killing six people and injuring 28, Syrian state TV said. The army retaliated and pounded militant targets, state news agency SANA said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said militants in Ghouta were targeting Damascus and using people there as “human shields”. It said in a letter of complaint to the U.N. that some Western officials were denying the government’s right to defend itself.

The Civil Defence in eastern Ghouta, a rescue service that operates in rebel territory, said jets battered Kafr Batna, Saqba, Hammouriyeh, and several other towns on Tuesday.

“The warplanes are not leaving the sky at all,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a civil defense spokesman in Ghouta, as the sound of explosions rang out in the background.

Mahmoud said that government forces bombed houses, schools and medical facilities, and that rescuers had found more than 100 people dead “in one day alone” on Monday.

Reuters photos showed bandaged people waiting at a medical point in the town of Douma, some of them with blood streaming down their faces and their skin caked in dust.

Bombs struck five hospitals in the enclave on Monday, said the UOSSM group of aid agencies that funds medical facilities in opposition parts of Syria.

DE-ESCALATION ZONES

Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, has been pushing its own diplomatic track which resulted in establishing several “de-escalation zones” in rebel territory last year.

Fighting has raged on in eastern Ghouta even though it falls under the ceasefire plans that Moscow brokered with the help of Turkey and Iran. The truces do not cover a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence in the besieged enclave.

Residents and aid workers say the “de-escalation” deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled.

The two main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta, which signed the deals with Russia last summer, accuse Damascus and Moscow of using the jihadist presence as a pretext for attacks.

Moscow did not comment on the renewed bombing in eastern Ghouta on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed on Monday “armed provocations” by Nusra militants, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, for conditions in Ghouta. He said Moscow and its allies could “deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo … in the eastern Ghouta situation”.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned on Tuesday that the escalating battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, which Damascus regained full control of in late 2016 after years of fighting.

“These fears seem to be well founded,” aid group International Rescue Committee also said on Tuesday. It said malnutrition was widespread and Ghouta’s schools had been closed since early January because of the attacks.

“The people of Eastern Ghouta are terrified… There is nowhere safe for them to run to,” IRC’s Middle East Regional Director Mark Schnellbaecher said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, and Lisa Barrington; additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Andrew Roche)

Mad Max violence stalks Venezuela’s lawless roads

A child looks at a basket filled with mandarins while workers load merchandise into Humberto Aguilar's truck at the wholesale market in Barquisimeto, Venezuela January 30,

By Andrew Cawthorne

LA GRITA, Venezuela (Reuters) – It’s midnight on one of the most dangerous roads in Latin America and Venezuelan trucker Humberto Aguilar hurtles through the darkness with 20 tons of vegetables freshly harvested from the Andes for sale in the capital Caracas.

When he set off at sunset from the town of La Grita in western Venezuela on his 900-km (560-mile) journey, Aguilar knew he was taking his life in his hands.

With hunger widespread amid a fifth year of painful economic implosion under President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has seen a frightening surge in attacks on increasingly lawless roads.

Just a few days earlier, Aguilar said he sat terrified when hundreds of looters swarmed a stationary convoy, overwhelming drivers by sheer numbers. They carted off milk, rice and sugar from other trucks but left his less-prized vegetables alone.

“Every time I say goodbye to my family, I entrust myself to God and the Virgin,” said the 36-year-old trucker.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While truck heists have long been common in Latin America’s major economies from Mexico to Brazil, looting of cargoes on roads has soared in Venezuela in recent times and appears to be not just a result of common crime but directly linked to growing hunger and desperation among the population of 30 million.

Across Venezuela, there were some 162 lootings in January, including 42 robberies of trucks, according to the consultancy Oswaldo Ramirez Consultores (ORC), which tracks road safety for companies. That compared to eight lootings, including one truck robbery, in the same month of last year.

“The hunger and despair are far worse than people realize, what we are seeing on the roads is just another manifestation of that. We’ve also been seeing people stealing and butchering animals in fields, attacking shops and blocking roads to protest their lack of food. It’s become extremely serious,” said ORC director Oswaldo Ramirez.

Eight people have died in the lootings in January of this year, according to a Reuters tally.

The dystopian attacks in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates are pushing up transport and food costs in an already hyperinflationary environment, as well as stifling movement of goods in the crisis-hit OPEC nation.

They have complicated the perilous life of truckers who already face harassment from bribe-seeking soldiers, spiraling prices for parts and hours-long lines for fuel.

Government officials and representatives of the security forces did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Barred by law from carrying guns, the Andean truckers form convoys to protect themselves, text each other about trouble spots – and keep moving as fast as possible.

Aguilar said that on one trip a man appeared on his truck’s sideboard and put a pistol to his head – but his co-driver swerved hard to shake the assailant off.

On this journey, however, he was lucky. Just before reaching Caracas, assailants hurled a stone at his windscreen but it bounced off.

Even once Andean truckers reach cities, there is no respite.

Armed gangs often charge them for safe passage and permission to set up markets.

“The government gives us no security. It’s madness. People have got used to the easy life of robbing,” said Javier Escalante, who owns two trucks that take vegetables from La Grita to the town of Guatire outside Caracas every week.

“But if we stop, how do we earn a living for our families? How do Venezuelans eat? And how do the peasant farmers sell their produce? We have no choice but to keep going.”

GUNMEN ON BIKES

The looters use a variety of techniques, depending on the terrain and the target, according to truckers, inhabitants of towns on highways, and videos of incidents.

Sometimes gunmen on motorbikes surround a truck, slowing it down before pouncing like lions stalking prey. In other instances, attackers wait for a vehicle to slow down – at a pothole for example – before jumping on, cutting through the tarpaulin and hurling goods onto the ground for waiting companions.

In one video apparently showing a looting and uploaded to social media, people are seen gleefully dragging live chickens from a stranded truck.

The looters use tree trunks and rocks to stop vehicles, and are particularly fond of “miguelitos” – pieces of metal with long spikes – to burst tires and halt vehicles.

A ring-road round the central town of Barquisimeto, with shanty-towns next to it, is notorious among truckers, who nickname it “The Guillotine” due to the regular attacks.

In some cases, crowds simply swarm at trucks when they stop for a break or repairs. Soldiers or policemen seldom help, according to interviews with two dozen drivers.

Yone Escalante, 43, who also takes vegetables from the Andes on a 2,800-km (1,700-mile) round-trip to eastern Venezuela, shudders when he recalls how a vehicle of his was ransacked in the remote plains of Guarico state last year.

The trouble began when one of his two trucks broke down and about 60 people appeared from the shadows and surrounded it.

Escalante, about half an hour behind in his truck, rushed to help. By the time he arrived, the crowd had swelled to 300 and Escalante – a well-spoken businessman who owns trucks and sells produce – said he jumped on the vehicle to reason with them.

“Suddenly two military men arrived on the scene, and I thought ‘Thank God, help has arrived’,” Escalante recounted during a break between trips in La Grita.

But as the crowd chanted menacingly “Food for the people!”, the soldiers muttered something about the goods being insured – which they were not – and drove off, he said.

“That was the trigger. They came at us like ants and stripped us of everything: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots. It took me all day to load that truck, and 30 minutes for them to empty it. I could cry with rage.”

MAD MAX OR ROBIN HOOD?

Though events on Venezuela’s roads may seem like something out of the Mad Max movie, truckers say they are often more akin to Robin Hood as assailants are careful not to harm the drivers or their vehicles provided they do not resist.

“The best protection is to be submissive, hand things over,” said Roberto Maldonado, who handles paperwork for truckers in La Grita. “When people are hungry, they are dangerous.”

However, all the truckers interviewed by Reuters said they knew of someone murdered on the roads – mainly during targeted robberies rather than spontaneous lootings.

With new tires now going for about 70 million bolivars – about $300 on the black market or more than two decades of work at the official minimum wage – looters often swipe them along with food.

The journey from the Andes to Caracas passes about 25 checkpoints, where the truckers have to alight and seek a stamp from National Guard soldiers.

At some, a bribe is required, with a bag of potatoes now more effective than increasingly worthless cash.

Yone Escalante said that on one occasion when he was looted after a tire burst, policemen joined in the fray, taking bananas and cheese with the crowd.

In the latest attack, just days ago, he was traveling slowly over potholes in a convoy with four other trucks after dark, when assailants jumped on and started grabbing produce.

“Even though there were holes in the road, we sped up and swerved to shake them off,” he said. “It’s either us or them.”

(See http://reut.rs/2GVaX0s for a related photo essay and http://tmsnrt.rs/2sgqfJP for a map of one trucking route)

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in La Grita; Editing by Girish Gupta, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)