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Maduro set for re-election as Venezuelans toil amid food shortages, hyperinflation

Near empty shelves greet customers at a pharmacy in Caracas on May 16, 2018, as imported drugs are not available anymore. (Mainichi)

CARACAS -- As the presidential election draws near in Venezuela, residents in this capital city have become trapped in the double bind of food shortages and hyperinflation that have forced many to flee the oil-rich South American country amid economic hardship stemming in part from stagnant oil prices.

"There are no decent jobs, and we've had a tough time making both ends meet with two kids. I wonder when this will be over," said Aleida Rodriguez, 29, as she queued up with several hundred others from early morning in the underground parking lot of a state-run supermarket on May 16.

They and several thousand Caracas residents waiting outside the market came for two bags per person of rationed rice, pasta, mayonnaise and other food items, which were sold at 6,000 bolivar. The price is fairly inexpensive: about 0.8 cents in U.S. dollars at street exchange rates. The bolivar is much higher against the dollar at government-sanctioned rates, but they are not considered to reflect the economic reality.

Despite the prevailing poverty and the government's increasing authoritarian tendencies criticized by the United States and European nations, the leftist, anti-Washington President Nicolas Maduro is expected to win his second term in the May 20 election. Leading opposition parties are boycotting the polls and their followers are likely to stay home on the election day.

"If you hand me victory on May 20, I swear I will end the economic war," Maduro declared to supporters at a rally in the capital on May 9. An estimated 1 million or more Venezuelans have sought refuge outside the country, but President Maduro insists that economic hardship has been "staged by the imperialistic United States."

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence attacked the Maduro regime in his May 7 speech to the Organization of American States (OAS), calling the president "a dictator." "We will stand with all who yearn for liberty and we will stand up to their oppressors," Pence said.

The vice president called for the election to be suspended and urged the 35-member OAS to suspend Venezuela's membership, and apply more sanctions on Maduro administration leaders. The U.S. and the European Union (EU) have made it clear that they do not intend to endorse the results of the presidential election and will intensify sanctions on Venezuela.

There were accusations of fraud in the gubernatorial elections in October of last year, where the opposition, despite positive pre-vote opinion polls, lost to the ruling party. No international election monitors were present.

Maduro argued that his country's election system is the most transparent in the world, and Russia and China are offering financial backing to the regime. Some anti-U.S. leftist countries such as Cuba and Bolivia also support the president.

The domestic and international confusion has not stopped some voters from thinking that Maduro still offers some promise. "He is the only one distributing food at low prices," said Francisco Ranch, 76, who was among the people waiting for the rationed food at the state-run supermarket. According to a local newspaper reporter, the store usually has almost no merchandise but May 16 was an exception. "I suspect that Mr. Maduro made arrangements to stock the shelves as he needs support from the poor in the elections," said the journalist, 48, preferring not to be named out of concern for political repercussions.

In a stark contrast to the state-run shop, a private supermarket for the rich was well stocked but had prices well beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. The price of 1.8 liters of milk was 860,000 bolivar (1.17 dollars), while 500 grams of pasta was 1.14 million bolivar (1.56 dollars). The minimum monthly wage in Venezuela is 1 million bolivar (1.36 dollars).

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the inflation rate in Venezuela was 1,000 percent in 2017, and is expected to soar to 14,000 percent. This means prices go up daily and the economy is in ruins.

According to a joint study by three local universities including Andres Bello Catholic University, the country's poverty rate shot up from 50 percent in 2014 to a staggering 90 percent three years later. Nutritional intake has deteriorated accordingly, and the average weight of Venezuelans dropped by 11 kilograms in the single year of 2017.

Shortages in medicine, much of which is imported like food, are acute, too. According to Javier, 34, the pharmacy he works for used to have more than 1,000 types of medication in stock, but became unable to obtain imported pharmaceutical products about three years ago and now the pharmacy has only 20 types of domestically manufactured drugs such as cough drops and asthma medicine. "I cannot provide the drugs my patients need. I hope this confusion is over soon," said Javier, with a deep sigh.

(Japanese original by Taichi Yamamoto, Sao Paulo Bureau)

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