Food for Thought

A simple loaf of bread can cost more than $800 in Venezuela today.

I haven’t been able to push this absurd, disturbing figure out of my mind ever since our art director pointed it out as we were working on this issue of the Journal. Somehow, that one telling detail seemed to embody the turbulent situation in Venezuela right now.

The South American nation’s petrodollar-dependent economy has been in a tailspin since 2014, when global oil prices began falling. Acute shortages of food and medicine have triggered a political and humanitarian crisis that’s getting worse by the day in this country of 30 million. People are standing in bread lines for hours, rooting through garbage bags for scraps, and handing over their life savings for a basket of food on the black market.

Protests and violent demonstrations against President Nicolás Maduro’s government had left more than 130 dead as of early August. Plagued also by widespread corruption, the country seems to be spiraling towards collapse.

In an attempt to avert this crisis, last year Maduro opened up a huge swath of Amazon wilderness to large-scale, open-pit mining projects and invited bids from multinational corporations. The idea seems to be: If oil doesn’t pay, try gold. But as reporter Bram Ebus writes (see “Arc of Desperation”), the project, called Arco Minero, would not only wreak havoc on the environment and the Indigenous communities living in the region – the area includes seven natural monuments and five national parks and is home to at least 11 ethnic tribes – it would also increase Venezuela’s dependence on the export of its natural resources. And as we are witnessing in real time, that can be a dangerous bet to begin with.

Instead, Venezuela would probably do better to take a page from its Caribbean neighbor – Cuba. When faced with a similar freefalling economy and food scarcity after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba responded by implementing a number of low-cost, low-carbon measures – such as using bicycles for transport and setting up organic farms – which decoupled its economy from fossil fuels and helped the island nation gain a measure of self-sufficiency. As reporter Bill Weinberg writes in this issue’s cover story (“Cuba Verde”), “these alternatives at least got people to work in the morning and put some food on the table.”

Whether Cuba will able to hold on to its ecologically friendly adaptations as the country opens up to the global marketplace is another matter, but its successful experiments with sustainable development prove that it is possible to grow a green economy that’s buffered from global market fluctuations. And that is something that not only Venezuela, but all of us should take note of.

Maureen Nandini Mitra signature graphic

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