BY MARIE PAULINE GENTRIC
It’s only 3 p.m. but Mary Limonta knows exactly what she and her daughter, Ann, will eat tonight – rice and vegetables. Yesterday, it was the same, and tomorrow, and even after tomorrow, it will be the same too. It’s been like that for a while.
“We are surviving; we are very limited,” Limonta says. “Our life is becoming miserable.”
Since 2013, Venezuelans like Limonta have been trying to survive the most severe recession and food crisis in the country history. National production and imports have plunged and supermarket shelves are almost always empty. Prices rose 6,147 percent in the 12 months ending in February, according to estimates by the country’s opposition-led National Assembly.
In this crisis, women are the ones looking for food. They are getting up at dawn to go to the supermarket, staying in line in the sun, sometimes with only one arepa – a traditional corn flour patty – in their stomachs. They spend between eight and 14 hours a week in line to get food, according to the report “Mujeres Al Limite,” released by four Venezuelan NGOs in 2017.
“Cultural norms establish that women are the main responsible to take care of the children in the family,” Dr. Rosa Paredes, who leads the Women Studies program at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas, says in Spanish in an e-mail interview. “This explains the gender inequality in the division of housework.”
In many cases, that division doesn’t even exist because almost 40 percent of Venezuelan mothers are single, according to a survey produced by the Instituto Nacional de Estaditicas in 2011. Limonta, 44, is one of them. She lives with her 8-year-old daughter in a one-bedroom apartment in Caracas, works as an insurance consultant and struggles daily for food.
Until nine months ago, she used to wake up at 3 a.m., leave her child at home and join a line with more than 2,000 other women – all of this to get three or four products in the supermarket. Waiting hours and hours, she has seen tensions rise and then violence from the anxiety of those who feared they would not be able to feed their children that night.
“Women fight for one liter of oil or for butter,” Limonta says in Spanish in a Skype interview.
Limonta had a bad experience herself, two years ago, when she went to the restroom and tried to come back a few minutes later. “A woman thought I was trying to skip the line,” she says. “I left, even if I didn’t get any food. I was scared, she was violent.”
Limonta’s fears are not baseless. As lines have grown longer, violence has been increasing. More and more women got hurt, some even lost their life, NGOs say. While there are no precise records of deaths and injuries, local journalists have reported the names of several people shot or crushed to death in the lines.
But Limonta didn’t stop standing in the food lines because she is scared, and even less because she’s tired. It’s because she cannot afford it anymore. She just can’t lose one day of salary each week, she says.
Now, she only goes to the supermarket every three weeks, on Saturdays. The rest of the time, she buys food from the bachaqueros, the black market vendors who sell their products for a very high price. They can be up to 71 times more expensive than in the regulated market, according to a study released by the agency Hinterlaces in 2016.
Limonta says her daughter, Ann, suffers a lot from the situation. Sometimes, the 8-year-old girl just would like to buy something at McDonalds, eat a hot dog or have an after-school snack. But this never happens.
“When I go to the park with my daughter, for example, I never buy her an ice cream,” Limonta says. “Because if I buy ice cream, I won’t have enough for bread.”
Most of the time, she cooks sandwiches, rice, potatoes and vegetables. Meat once or twice a week, at a maximum. When she has something left, she tries to barter with her neighbors. “I can change one liter of oil for one kilo of sugar,” Limonta says. “Or change pasta for toothpaste or for soap.” But even bartering has become rarer. Most of people don’t have anything to exchange, she says.
Last year, more than 64 percent of the population of 31.5 million said they had lost 11 kilograms or a little more than 24 pounds in weight, according to the 2017 Survey on Life Conditions of Venezuelans, conducted by academic researchers since 2014. Limonta, who is 5.4 foot, says she has lost 20 kilos or about 44 pounds in two years.
She is aware her situation could be better – or less bad – if she registered to get the “Carnet de la Patria,” a national identity card first issued by current President Nicolas Maduro in December 2016. The ID card allows citizens to get better access for food. They can go to the CLAPS (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Produccion), government-run committees that sell food bags at subsidized prices. The government said it has issued almost 15 million “Carnets de la Patria” the first six months of 2017.
But Limonta doesn’t want to be one of them. A fervent opponent of Maduro, she was part of the hundreds marching in anti-government protests in July 2017. Today, she doesn’t go to the streets anymore – she fears for her life and doesn’t want to leave her daughter alone, she says – but she keeps protesting. Through food.
For her, refusing to get the “Carnet de la Patria” is a way to keep up with the fight. Even two years ago, after she had lost her job, had just separated from her daughter’s father and had nothing left at home to eat, Limonta held on. During one week, she and her daughter only ate potatoes.
“Everybody is telling me: ‘you have a daughter, you have to feed her,’” Limonta says. “But for me, accepting the help from the government would be like a second sacrifice.”
The first one – the hours in line, the overwhelming anxiety and the hunger – is already more than enough for her.