World Economy

Hunger drives Venezuelans to call on their last lifeline — relatives in the US

A Venezuela resident carries food in plastic bags in the Catia neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela
Manaure Quintero | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Shipping food to Venezuela from her home in Florida is a part of Belsay Gonzalez's monthly routine — her effort against a crisis that has left her loved ones back in South America suffering from hunger.

Gonzalez, a U.S. immigrant from Venezuela, accepted her role as her family's only lifeline in June of this year, when her 75-year-old father-in-law desperately asked for her help with finding food.

"He never asked for helped before," said Gonzalez, reflecting on the moment she realized she had to take action.

The government will sell you a bag that is not enough for even a few days. One kilogram (roughly 5 cups) of rice, one kilogram of sugar, one kilogram of milk … these do not take away an entire family's hunger.
head of four-adult household in Venezuela

Venezuela's oil-dependent economy capsized with the fall in crude prices that began in 2014, leaving whole swathes of the country's 31 million people without enough food or other necessities. Inflation is expected to hit almost 720 percent this year, and Gross Domestic Product is seen falling by 8 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Separately, the government in Caracas put price controls in place that stripped importers of any incentive to bring food into the country. The controls also push products from store shelves to the black market, where they can bring much higher profits to sellers.

Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, left the nation in a vulnerable economic position by nationalizing energy resources and industry while oil prices were high, and spending the proceeds on widespread social programs. Oil's global drop left the government far short of its revenue needs and with only an anemic private sector to generate taxes or jobs.

Gonzalez said she feared sending food through a big charity because she fears the shipments could be seized or stolen by the government. She tried contacting smaller, online charities, but said she never received a call back. So she decided to send the goods herself.

What started as favor for a loved one turned into a makeshift crisis-response unit.

Below: WhatsApp conversation between Gonzalez and "Isaac," confirming the arrival of the shipment. Source: Belsay Gonzalez

"I could see that the level of desperation was high, so I decided to ask two of my friends in Venezuela if they or anyone they knew needed help," said Gonzalez. The referrals flooded in.

Through her own money, along with donations from her GoFundMe page, Gonzalez has managed to send an average of two shipments a month.

Below: Luis' refrigerator in Venezuela

One shipment contains six 90-pound boxes, with each box costing roughly $50 dollars for shipping and $150 to fill with groceries. Typical items include pasta, rice, beans, lentils, sugar, tuna, pasta sauce, coffee, powdered milk, wheat flour, cereal, canned chicken, soap, laundry detergent, oil, toilet paper, deodorant, shampoo and razors.

Isaac, Luis, Julien, and Daniela — all pseudonyms — were on the receiving end of Gonzalez's shipments. Each provided CNBC with their perspective on the food shortage and the effect it has had on their families.

"The government will sell you a bag that is not enough for even a few days. One kilogram (roughly 5 cups) of rice, one kilogram of sugar, one kilogram of milk … these do not take away an entire family's hunger," said Isaac, whose household consists of four adults, one of them a senior. He shares his limited rations with struggling neighbors.

Luis recalled that the last time his refrigerator was full was nearly 20 months ago.

Julien, whose household has six adults and two children, said the family has been reduced to two meals a day or less. And a typical meal may mean only an arepa — a bread-like patty of ground maize and flour — accompanied, every so often, by boiled potatoes and water.

Purchasing enough food has proven futile for many working class Venezuelans.

"For a salaried person making a monthly minimum wage of $18, it has become impossible to cover basic expenses," said Daniela, who frequents supermarkets. She said that it's been several months since she has seen rice, wheat flour, beans, or toilet paper on the shelves.

People walk at the refrigerated foods section inside a Makro supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela.
Jorge Silva | Reuters

According to Isaac, the last resort is turning to the bachaqueros, or black market. However, buying goods from the bachaqueros comes with an exorbitant price tag, as sellerstake advantage of high demand.

Many people in Venezuela are worried not only about where their next meal will come from, but how long the shortages will persist. "My biggest fear is that a political and economic change does not happen, and this dictatorship continues," said Daniela.

She went on to acknowledge that if any changes occur in the next several years, she expects her country to experience even more difficult times in the short term.

But Daniela said she is hopeful that political change and economic improvements will arrive for the next generation of Venezuelans.