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Venezuela Agriculture and Food: Resilience or Total Collapse of Food Security Under Repeated Crises?

Isabelle Tsakok | April 05, 2021

Venezuela has hurtled from crisis to crisis since the 1980s oil glut. Time and again, successive governments, whether Democratic or Bolivarian Socialist have failed to utilize Venezuela’s plentiful oil revenues to build a stable, competitive, diversified, and inclusive economy, with sustainable food security for all. Years of ‘feast’ have alternated with years of ‘famine’ for decades. It is feared that, at the dawn of 2021, Venezuelans are literally in the grip of a looming famine. No end to this tragedy is in sight. What are the root causes of this still unfolding tragedy? There are many views on this, but this paper focuses on only one of Venezuela’s many tragedies: the inability of a well- endowed country to strengthen the agriculture and the food security of all its people in a sustainable way. Venezuela’s great asset—its enormous oil wealth—has turned out to be a persistent liability—the inability of successive governments to translate this abundant resource into sustainable and substantial investment in agriculture and other non-oil sectors to develop a diversified and inclusive economy within a stable price and macro-economic framework. It has remained an oil-dominated, inequitable, and unstable economy for decades, irrespective of the political and economic philosophy of the prevailing government. The development of agriculture has been undermined by the Dutch disease, exacerbated by policies that neglected (i) technology transfer; (ii) market access; and (iii) security of land tenure and usufruct rights for the majority of smallholders in a highly dualistic agrarian structure. Despite short term attempts to reverse the negative impacts of the Dutch disease, these turned out to be too little too late. More generally, government policies have swung from the extreme right—the neo-liberalism of price decontrol and privatization—to the extreme left—centralized control of prices and markets promoting a ‘Bolivarian Socialist’ agenda. Both extremes have relied heavily on welfare schemes generously funded by oil revenues. Neither extremes have worked. Add to these the seemingly intractable governance problems of corruption, non-accountable public administration, and recurrent coups. The onslaught of COVID-19 in early 2020 turned a dire food security situation into a desperate one. It is hard to see much sign of resilience in an exhausted nation, although the sheer will to survive the direst circumstances has always been the inherent resilience of humankind.