The 'boycott' of carrots: two farmers arrested for protesting against the shortage of gasoline in Venezuela | International

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Ysnet Antonio Rodriguez Mambel, a farmer arrested for throwing away food, along with a frame from the viral video he starred in in Pueblo Llano de Mérida (Venezuela)PUBLIC MINISTRY OF VENEZUELA

A series of videos of carrots, tomatoes and bananas has gone viral in Venezuela. They have triggered arrests by the police and violent interventions in the National Assembly, where a few days ago the Chavista deputy Iris Varela justified the actions of the authorities. "They are well detained," she snapped into the microphone before the parliamentarians. She was referring to two farmers from the Venezuelan Andes, Ysnet Rodríguez and Jhonar Barazarte, who, in protest, or out of mere resignation, recorded themselves discarding their crops that were about to decompose without having reached the markets. The reason? The exacerbation of the fuel shortage that not only snatches hours from Venezuelans in lines at gas stations, but also paralyzes the countryside.

Taking a tomato to a supermarket is a feat in Venezuela. The episode of the farmers reveals the dimensions of the crisis of the South American country. But the judicial attack by the Government's allied Prosecutor's Office against the farmers, exhibited in their photographs of the police review, has made it clear that the toughest years of controls on the economy that led to the worst period of shortages have not ended. The measure has set off the alarms of human rights defenders and unions who have indicated that the pursuit of justice must go against those responsible for the gasoline shortage. The NGO Espacio Público has warned about violations of freedom of expression and the right to protest in these cases. Following public pressure, both were released after their appearance in court.

Prosecutor Tarek William Saab accused the farmers of the crime of boycott, contemplated in the Fair Prices Law, an instrument with which the Government has unilaterally lowered prices and closed premises. This offense is typified for those who "jointly or separately develop or carry out actions, or incur in omissions that directly or indirectly prevent the production, manufacture, import, collection, transport, distribution and commercialization of goods, as well as the provision of services". It is punishable by 12 to 15 years in prison.

The 17 states of Venezuela that live from agricultural activity are affected by the shortage of fuel from which only Caracas, the capital, is saved, where shipments are regular. The agricultural unions have asked to meet with William Saab to explain his working conditions and also some biology. "The cycles of vegetables do not wait and, above all, horticultural production is perishable, it rots and is damaged if they cannot sell it because they cannot get it out for gasoline," Celso Fantinel, president of Fedeagro, the organization, told EL PAÍS that brings together the farmers of the country. “Of 25,000 horticultural producers, we see only 3 or 4 who have made these videos out of frustration and anger, but they represent the feelings of all. This cannot be considered a crime."

Among all the economic sectors hit by the brutal crisis of recent years, the countryside is one of the most desolate. Agriculture is a job of uncertainty and expectation, but in Venezuela putting a seed in the ground is throwing yourself into a vacuum without access to credit, with migration that has left without labor, the high cost of inputs, the very low prices of food due to the oversupply that smuggling has brought from neighboring countries, the vagaries of the weather and the enormous chain of obstacles that exist from when a tomato crat is filled on a farm until it reaches a market bag. "How is it possible that from La Grita [un pueblo de los Andes emblemático productor de hortalizas] there are 50 alcabalas to Caracas”, Fantinel wonders indignantly. Merchandise is left at these alcabalas or police checkpoints so that the police let them continue. A system of extortion that the Government recognizes and has tried to control, but that continues to be denounced.

Added to this is the low purchasing power of Venezuelans who have sacrificed their daily intake. Traders have reported a significant drop in sales in this hard 2023, a new economic slowdown after the slight recovery experienced in 2022. "In the field we are producing what was produced 30 or 40 years ago, when we were a country with less than half of the inhabitants now”, says Fantinel.

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less gasoline

Gasoline seems to be a chronic disease. The country went from refining 1.3 million barrels per day to operating at 10% of its real capacity with some 135,000 barrels per day; a fall that began in 2013, long before the international sanctions with which Chavismo has justified the disaster. This production is not enough to cover internal demand and, furthermore, the commitments that Venezuela has with Cuba.

In recent weeks, the ups and downs in the oil industry, which operates with patches and patches after years of mismanagement, have exacerbated the shortage. The president of PDVSA, Pedro Tellechea, has denied the failures in the distribution of fuel and has assured that there is normality. He has said that the complaints "only seek to generate stress."

In 2020, Venezuela was confined due to the pandemic and also due to fuel shortages. The stoppage opened the way for the government to finally adjust the price of gasoline, subsidized for more than two decades, and announce agreements with Iran for the recovery of PDVSA. Three years later, neither the income from the sale of fuel —which went from practically nothing to 50 cents a liter— nor diplomatic relations have improved. Neither have the licenses that the United States has given to some foreign oil companies such as Chevron to operate in the country amid the sanctions and thus pay off the debts they accumulate. Instead, a flood of corruption around the oil company has been recognized by Chavismo in recent months and already amounts to an embezzlement of 20,000 million dollars.

"There is no case or example in the world of a company that was exemplary has come to occupy a shameful place in the hydrocarbons market," says economist and oil expert Rafael Quiroz Serrano. "It is on the ground, almost totally inoperative and that is reflected in the drop in the two most referential numbers for the country, which are production and refining, which compromises all of the country's economic activity."

In the State of Mérida, where one of the farmers who could not get his harvest due to lack of gasoline was arrested, a few weeks ago the governor distributed the gas stations in a kind of raffle with a bingo screen to regulate the supply according to the number of vehicle registration number. He spike and plate —which in Venezuela is not used for the purpose of regulating traffic, but rather to enter gas stations— is maintained in several states and in some others it has been reactivated these days under military supervision, also overnight stays for fuel loads , and other survival methods that emerged in the attempt of Venezuelans to manage the scarcity.

The Maduro government still has a pending account with the reconstruction of the industry that continues to be its main source of income. While that is happening, in Venezuela, where at one time it was news that it had the cheapest gasoline in the world and could almost be given away, the lines for fuel seem to be here to stay.

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