Venezuela's Bread Wars: With Food Scarce, Government Accuses Bakers Of Hoarding

Apr 7, 2017
Originally published on April 7, 2017 10:10 am

Venezuela is in the midst of a war — a bread war. That's according to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Amid a severe economic crisis, his government is dealing with widespread food shortages. Now, even bread is hard to find.

In a recent speech, Maduro accused bakers of waging a "bread war against the Venezuelan people."

Maduro claims that bakers are hoarding flour and using it to make more profitable brownies and cookies rather than bread. All this, Maduro contends, is part of a broader effort by private business owners to sabotage the economy and bring down his government.

In response, officials over the past month have seized numerous bakeries and arrested their owners during police operations.

Meanwhile, those bakers still in business scramble to find the flour their livelihood depends on. That includes people like Carlos Coelho, who has run the Latina bakery in Caracas for the last 15 years. On a recent day, he started making bread at 7 a.m. Outside the bakery, a line begins to form long before the bread is ready.

Coelho will only churn out about 500 French-style baguettes on this day. He would make more bread if he could, but he's down to his last few 100-pound sacks of flour.

"I need at least 150 sacks per week," Coelho says. "But last week I received just 26."

The flour is made from wheat imported by Venezuela's socialist government, which holds vast control over the economy. But due to a cash crunch, the Maduro government is importing only about 25 percent of the wheat that the country needs, according to the Venezuelan Bread Makers Federation.

Coelho defends bakers against Maduro's accusations of flour hoarding. He explains that due to price controls, bread must be sold at a loss — for about 20 U.S. cents per loaf. So, like other bakery owners, he reserves some flour for pizza and pastries that he can sell at market prices to help keep his business afloat.

At midday, Latina workers pull the baguettes from the oven and dump them into bins. The smell drifts into the street and the people in line push forward. Coelho allows just five customers into the store at once. They've been waiting in line for two hours, and they are allowed just two baguettes each. In exchange for bread, two policemen monitor the crowd in case fights break out.

Another line forms at the cash register. Turns out, there's also a cash shortage in Venezuela. So, shoppers pay for almost everything — even 20 cents worth of French bread — with credit cards.

Within 40 minutes, the baguettes are sold out. But it could be a while before Coelho has any more to offer.

As the crowd in the bakery thins out he declares: "We have no more flour to make bread."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Venezuela, where an economic crisis has brought thousands of people to the streets. The demonstrations have been growing since the country's supreme court tried to nullify the Congress there. Food and medicine are in short supply. And as John Otis reports, even bread is hard to find now.

CARLOS COELHO: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: It's 7 a.m. at the Latina bakery, and the bread-making begins. Carlos Coelho, who's run the bakery for 15 years, watches over his workers as they combine flour, water, yeast, salt and margarine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE RUNNING)

OTIS: A machine then rolls the dough into thin strips that will produce the only bread of the day, about 500 French-style baguettes.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: Long before the baguettes are ready, a line forms outside the bakery even though it's raining. Coelho would make more bread if he could. But he's down to his last few 100-pound sacks of flour.

COELHO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I need at least 150 sacks per week. But last week, I received just 26," Coelho says.

The flour is made from wheat imported by Venezuela's socialist government, which holds vast control over the economy. But due to a cash crunch, the Maduro government is importing only about 25 percent of the wheat that the country needs, according to the Venezuelan Bread Makers Federation. Maduro has a different explanation for the bread shortages.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a recent speech, he accused bakers of waging a bread war against the Venezuelan people. Maduro claims that bakers are hoarding flour and using it to make more profitable brownies and cookies rather than bread. All this, Maduro contends, is part of a broader effort by private business owners to sabotage the economy and bring down his government.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In response, officials over the past month have seized numerous bakeries and arrested their owners during police operations like this one broadcast on state television.

COELHO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Back at Latina, Coelho defends bakers. He explains that, due to price controls, bread must be sold at a loss, for about 20 U.S. cents per loaf. So like other bakery owners, he reserves some flour for pizza and pastries that he can sell at market prices to keep his business afloat. At midday, Latina workers pull the baguettes from the oven and dump them into bins. The smell drifts into the street, and the people in line push forward.

COELHO: Cinco - uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco.

OTIS: Coelho allows just five customers into the store at once. In exchange for bread, two policemen monitor the crowd in case fights break out.

They're just starting to sell the bread now. People can come in here, and they can only buy two baguettes. They've waited in line for two hours, and they get two baguettes.

Even with bread in hand, the misery is not over. Another line forms at the cash register. Turns out, there's also a cash shortage in Venezuela, so shoppers pay for almost everything, even 20 cents' worth of French bread, with credit cards. Within 40 minutes, the baguettes are sold out. But it could be awhile before Coelho has any more to offer.

COELHO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: As the crowd in the bakery thins out, he declares, we have no more flour to make bread.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas, Venezuela.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD LOPEZ-NUSSA'S "LOBO'S CHA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.