On March 9, 2015, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced Venezuela would install nearly 20,000 fingerprint scanners at supermarkets across the country, as part of a plan to begin rationing food. According to President Maduro, the new system will control the amount of food people will be purchasing, or as he calls it, “food hoarding.”
While Venezuela faces its own internal problems, the United States upped the ante by declaring Venezuela a national security threat. President Barack Obama's executive order would impose sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials and is widely considered the prelude to larger scale economic sanctions. The effects of Obama’s executive decision on Venezuela remain to be seen but more sanctions could spell economic disaster.
Since 2011, Venezuela has experienced a lack of staple foods such as milk, cooking oil, poultry, sugar, and coffee. Medicines, toilet paper, sanitary napkins, and detergent are missing from supermarket shelves. Monday's announcement marks the second time the Maduro administration attempted to introduce a fingerprint-based system to track and limit food purchases. In early 2014, President Maduro encouraged Venezuelans voluntarily join a similar system that sought to reduce long grocery store lines and stem food scarcity. The so-called Secure Supply Card, however, was short-lived.
(Translation: “Welcome to the Biometric Republic of Venezuela. Food is exchanged for a fingerprint!”)
President Maduro also claims that a biometric system will curb the smuggling of Venezuelan goods to Colombia. For some Venezuelans, goods and gasoline sold across the border represent more money because Colombian pesos can be traded on the black market rate for a modest profit. Maduro also points his finger at food manufacturers and supermarket suppliers for waging an “economic warfare, ” calling on them “one by one” to pledge full-fledged goods production. Maduro’s opposition – mainly private enterprise owners and the Democratic Unity Roundtable party—he calls the “bourgeoisie,” has not been in control of Venezuela’s destiny for the last 15 years, so who is really to blame here?
Critics of the policies believe that controlling and closing the border with Colombia will have little effect: economic woes in Venezuela - such as inflation and expropriation of factories and private property - pose a greater threat. Venezuelans blame Maduro’s disastrous economic measures for this shortage, and their patience is running thin as they spend hours in meters-long lines.
(Translation: "A woman in the Zulia state uses the biometric food rationing scanner.")
(Translation: "Where’s the line to dignity?")
(Translation: During International Women’s Day, many women line up to buy food in Venezuela. A woman holds a sign that reads “Maduro: Don’t kill my children.”)
And the citizens have a right to be angry. Even before Maduro’s tenure, former President Hugo Chávez held an unclenching control over foreign exchange rate. This presented a major hurdle for manufacturers because the only way to import machinery or raw materials in Venezuela is by using U.S. dollars. In the words of Luis Vicente de León from the blog Pro Da Vinci, strict foreign exchange rates are the root of this malady:
“With foreign exchange rate control, there is always an over-appreciation that hyper-stimulates the demand for foreign currency and imports. This has created an enormous gap for [state oil company] Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), since it cannot acquire an adequate price for its exports in dollars, so it goes after international reserves and forces discreet assignment of foreign currency by Venezuelan officials, which also translates into inefficacy and corruption.”
Moreover, inflation in Venezuela hovers around 60 percent—the world’s highest—while cheap oil isn’t filling the coffers. Despite being the world’s ninth largest oil producer, oil subsidies to small Latin American and Caribbean nations do not generate enough revenue for PDVSA, which heavily finances President Maduro’s socialist programs. With the plummeting price of oil over the last few months, and the lack of economic support President Maduro received during his trip to China and Russia last January, the Venezuelan economy proves to be more vulnerable than ever – to say nothing of his position as President.
Maduro, through all his demagoguery, is trying to convince all Venezuelans that he’s the only person who can protect them from external threats. In the wake of President Barack Obama’s executive order, Maduro will sharpen his rhetoric to convince his citizens that the Bolivarian project for nationwide socialism needs to be deepened. The hard reality is that his economic measures are Venezuela’s biggest peril. If his administration does not make strict changes to the exchange rates and spur the nation's competitiveness in global marketplace, President Maduro will continue to witness the crumbling of his country.
Robert Valencia is an avid writer and Latinamerican-ist based in New York City. His research on U.S-Latin American relations, conflict resolution, human rights, and government accountability.