Rioting continues after radical changes to Venezuelan currency

A man checks some bank notes of hundred bolivars as he lines up outside of a branch Bank in Caracas, Venezuela, Dec. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Anti-government protests and riots continued in Venezuela over the weekend after changes to the country’s currency left millions with piles of worthless cash and nothing to eat.

The protests initially flared up last week after President Nicolás Maduro voided Venezuela’s 100-bolivar note. Citizens were given just days to turn in their cash, leading to long lines at banks, anti-government riots, robberies and at least one death.

In an effort to quell the unrest, the government on Saturday postponed the decision for another two weeks. Despite the extension, the BBC reported that rioting continued into Sunday as citizens’ cash supplies rapidly ran out.

In a televised meeting with his cabinet, Maduro blamed the delay on an international conspiracy.

“Venezuela has been the victim of sabotage, persecution so that the new bills do not arrive,” the socialist leader said. The government paid for the shipments of the new bills but “simply, they couldn’t make it because they sabotaged our cargoes,” he said without further explanation.

The South American country closed its borders with Colombia until Jan. 2 to thwart what the government calls “mafia hoarding” of Venezuelan money. Though many experts questioned that allegation.

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“The idea that anybody would want to hoard a currency that has lost 60 percent of its value in the past two months is absurd,” David Smilde of the think tank Washington Office on Latin America told the Economist.

State TV showed a plane arriving on Sunday afternoon with the first batch of new 500-bolivar notes, which Maduro said would be put into circulation to replace the 100-bolivar notes that would soon be voided.

Hunger fuels acts of desperation

Venezuela has seen increased violence and criminal gang activity as the crisis progresses. And while the government grapples with the economy, people are turning to increasingly desperate measures.

Since last week, security forces have arrested more than 300 people during protests and lootings, Maduro said on Sunday. In some areas, security forces fired tear gas. One 14-year-old boy was shot dead amid the chaos in the northeast municipality El Callao over the weekend.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that inflation would hit 700 percent by the end of the year. As this pushes prices higher and higher, food is becoming inaccessible for the majority of Venezuelans. Maduro  urged citizens make electronic transactions instead of using cash where possible, but 40 percent of Venezuelans do not have bank accounts.

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According to Reuters, some parents are now giving away children they can no longer afford to feed or care for properly. One mother that the news agency spoke to said that she asked a neighbor to begin taking care of her 6-year-old daughter in October.

“It’s better that she has another family than go into prostitution, drugs or die of hunger,” said Zulay Pulgar, 43, whose household of five had been living on U.S. $6 per month.

As these acts of desperation make headlines around the globe, many criticize Maduro’s administration for refusing to accept international assistance. Opponents want Maduro out and said that two decades of socialist policies have killed the economy. But authorities have stymied the opposition’s push for a referendum to oust him before the next presidential election in late 2018.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com