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CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelans complain that what goes into their Sunday dinner plate comes from abroad: Steak, from Brazil; plantains, the Dominican Republic; rice, South Africa; Parmesan cheese, Uruguay; oats, Chile. Even coffee, in a country famed for it, often is Colombian.
It's a complaint heard often these days as Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, seeks election against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Under the socialist government, shoppers cannot count on finding sugar, cornmeal for Venezuela's beloved arepas and other goods when they go to market.
Those shoppers will be casting ballots Sunday in an election in which food security is a key issue, along with crime and power outages.
"You can't find anything," said Ermis Rodriguez, a 76-year-old retiree who walked away from the chicken legs on offer at a meat stand inside Caracas' bustling Guaicapuro Market. "I voted for Chavez, but I'm not voting for Maduro. Things are getting worse."
Chavez, who died March 5, made agrarian reform a pillar of his "revolution" and vowed to turn Venezuela into a self-sufficient, food-exporting power. His government expropriated 2.3 million hectares (5.7 million acres) of farmland over the last 12 years that he said were misused. He nationalized food-producing companies whose owners he claimed were gouging the people, conspiring against his government, or both. For some products such as rice and coffee, the government-controlled market share has ranged from 40 percent to 75 percent.
For the past seven years, Venezuela, a major oil exporter, has seen sporadic shortages of some basic foods like milk and butter. The country of 30 million people still imports nearly 70 percent of its food. And it has to import products it did not need to before Chavez, including beef, coffee and rice.
While Venezuela was nearly self-sufficient in beef 15 years ago, it now imports nearly half the beef it consumes, said Manuel Cipriano, president of the national cattle ranchers' association. The government and some pro-Chavez agricultural groups dispute that figure but still put it at least 30 percent. Last year alone, frozen beef imports increased nearly 150 percent, according to government figures posted on the ranchers' association's website. That has pushed up beef prices.
Gerardo Barreto, president of the Chamber of Industry of the central state of Carabobo, said Chavez gutted Venezuela's coffee industry by expropriating its major players, in one stroke diminishing and degrading the product as companies with decades of know-how were replaced by state conglomerates lacking expertise.
"Our coffee used to be excellent. Now it's a coffee worthy of the garbage," he said. "Because it doesn't come prepared or selected. The know-how has been lost."
Barreto said Chavez's expropriation of the seed and fertilizer company Agro Islena had also hurt agricultural production. Fertilizer imported by the government is now more expensive or can't be obtained, he said. "The entire chain of productivity was messed up," he said.
Sonia Pena, 50, eyes cuts of Brazilian beef in the Guaicapuro market. "It takes me all day, going from market to market, to get enough to feed my family each week," she said.
Capriles accuses the government of ruining the food market through nationalizations and what he calls ineptitude. He promises to end expropriations and promote dialogue between landowners and farmworkers. He says he will fix Venezuela's deteriorating rural roads, create a micro-lending program for small farms and establish agricultural teaching institutions in every region.
Venezuelan homes will "have refrigerators filled with good food, food made in Venezuela, food made by our farmworkers and not farmworkers from other countries," Capriles vowed during a campaign rally Sunday.
Chavez's proposed plan for his unfinished six-year term had similar proposals, including fixing roads, but the government plans to keep up expropriations.
Jose Agustin Campos, president of the pro-government National Confederation of Farmers and Ranchers, defended Chavez's policies at a news conference Tuesday. He said Chavez had reduced interest rates for agricultural loans to help farmers invest and imposed a minimum wage for rural workers on par with urban laborers to encourage the workforce to stay on the farms.
Campos also said dependence on food imports is an old problem that preceded Chavez.
Attempts at agrarian reform in the 1960s sputtered when the government redistributed land but failed to provide the new farmers with the expertise and capital needed to succeed, leading them to produce less. By the time Chavez was elected in 1999, a census had found that 90 percent of farmland given to the poor had returned to large landholders.
Chavez had promised not to make the same mistakes, but Venezuela's poor have continued to migrate to the cities; deprived of expertise, many expropriated farms produce less and less. Private food makers, large and small, often sell at a loss because of hundreds of price controls that Chavez imposed in a losing fight against runaway inflation. The government controls the foreign currency they need to buy foreign-made pesticides, fertilizers, animal food and machinery.
Maduro has insisted he will continue Chavez's legacy of state-sponsored supply for the poor. And last Thursday, he injected a new element into the campaign, accusing Venezuela's biggest private food producer, Alimentos Polar, of sabotaging the domestic food market, though he did not elaborate on how.
"Keep up your sabotage of the people's food," Maduro bellowed at a rally in the northern state of Carabobo. "That's OK. Everything in life has its end."
Polar employs about 48,000 people directly and indirectly in its foods division and accounts for roughly 10 percent of domestic food production, including grains, sauces, cheese, canned foods, jam, animal food and other products.
It issued an unusually strong statement Friday that called Maduro's remarks "threatening" and insisted it is producing at maximum capacity despite a web of government restrictions.
Polar said the government owes it $140 million in U.S. dollars for imports. It said the government decides where its products are shipped, "without taking into account consumer demand." It said the government has disrupted cornmeal inventories throughout Venezuela by demanding that Polar send most of it to Caracas.
Polar added that every food delivery it makes must be approved beforehand by the government. And it noted that official prices for many of its products have not changed in two years despite a recent devaluation of the bolivar currency and estimated inflation of 23 percent. The company said it is losing money on sales of some products, including precooked corn meal, rice, corn oil and pasta.
In a skewed and often irrational market, the vendors at Guaicapuro do what they can.
Dexnmit Gonzalez's family sells chicken and eggs at 50 percent more than official prices. The government-set prices are posted on a board he's flipped around so customers can't see them, but which can be quickly displayed should a price inspector come around.
"Between us," Gonzalez said, "we cannot sell at official prices."
On Saturday, many shoppers walked away from a display case half-stocked with scrawny chicken breasts. Gonzalez brought out a healthy chicken breast and held it in his palms. "This is very scarce," he said. "Nothing's guaranteed."
Across the way, Rocky Galviz, 42, sells pig feet, cuts of meat and turkey beneath a sign urging shoppers to denounce price gouging to the "Institute for the Defense of People Seeking Goods and Services." Galviz confides he must sell his Brazilian meat at 50 percent above official prices to make ends meet.
The government can sell its own imports of Brazilian meat at state prices, Galviz complained.
"That is unfair competition," he said.
Associated Press Writers Alexandra Olson in Caracas and Frank Bajak in Valencia, Venezuela, contributed to this story.