Maduro leans on military to control Venezuela’s food supply

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, left, with his Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino. File Oct. 27, 2014. (Credit: AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

As Venezuela continues its spiral into debilitating economic crisis, President Nicolás Maduro has put the head of the armed forces, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, in charge of a new food supply system.

According to a decree published Tuesday in the official gazette, Padrino López will have control of transporting and distributing basic products, controlling prices and stimulating production in the so-called Great Mission of Sovereign Supply.

Among the mission’s goals will be to wean oil-dependent Venezuela off of foreign food imports and jumpstart agricultural production, which has long been stunted by price controls.

During the Council of Productive Economy, Padrino López described the new mission as a “matter of defense and homeland security,” and that the government is not trying to militarize the production and distribution of food.

“It’s not a matter of militarizing, I hate militarization,” Padrino López said. “It’s about establishing a little discipline.”

But many are alarmed that all government ministries, ministers and state institutions will be in absolute subordination to Padrino López, who is now among the most powerful people in the socialist state. Even before the appointment, Venezuela’s military was involved in everything from the country’s banking to imports.

“This is now a completely militarized government,” Luis Manuel Esculpi, a security analyst in Caracas and former head of the armed forces commission in the congress, told the Wall Street Journal. “The army is Maduro’s only source of authority.”

Freddy Guevara, a leader of the opposition party to Maduro’s government, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), that the move is evidence that the government is at a loss of what to do, El Nacional reported. Padrino López is a “super minister,” Guevara said, who acts as a “parallel vice president.”

“Is it a move to remove [Maduro] from power? I don’t know. What I do know is that we cannot continue to allow Venezuela to run by improvisation,” said Guevara, who is a deputy to the National Assembly, in an interview with Venevision.

Guevara added that he hopes the dialogue will open a channel for humanitarian aid to the country. He stressed that there are many countries that are willing to help Venezuela, but the government does not allow foreign exports to enter Venezuelan territory.

Throughout the current economic crisis, Maduro has relied increasingly on the armed forces as his approval ratings dropped to record lows and food shortages led to widespread and often violent protests. Last month there was an average of 24 protests each day, a third of which were sparked by food shortages, according to a recent study published by local Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. The shortages now top voters’ lists of concerns, surpassing even safety in a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates.

Armed soldiers already stand guard over supermarkets and supply trucks to maintain order, and the National Guard has killed three and arrested hundreds this summer while trying to control nationwide food riots.

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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