| CARACAS, April 29
CARACAS, April 29 Huge queues at supermarkets
and shortages of basic products have become the norm in
Venezuela over the last year - and the most needy are
increasingly at the sharp edge.
Workers at soup kitchens for the homeless and hungry face an
ever-more difficult task to find rice, lentils, flour and other
staples to provide a free daily hot meal.
"I queue for hours every day because you can only get one
thing one day, another the next," said Fernanda Bolivar, 54, who
has worked for 11 years at the church-supported "Mother Teresa"
soup kitchen in a back-street of downtown Caracas.
"The situation's got terrible in the last year," she said,
in a dingy kitchen at the center named for the Roman Catholic
nun who helped the poor and dying in India.
(Please see a photo essay at reut.rs/1iTinkj)
Inspired to help because of her own experience of going
hungry a decade ago, Bolivar cooks lunch every day for the 50 or
so people who sit on long concrete tables inside the dimly-lit
refuge that often gets flooded during the rainy season.
To get the ingredients, like many other Venezuelan shoppers,
she rises at 4 a.m. to start queueing - normally for several
hours - at a supermarket nearby with hundreds of others. A
number marking her place in the queues is scrawled on her hand.
Opponents of President Nicolas Maduro's government say the
queues are a national embarrassment and symbol of failed
socialist economics similar to the old Soviet Union.
But officials say businessmen are deliberately hoarding
products as part of an "economic war" against him. They point to
popular social welfare programs, and a halving of poverty levels
since Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, as
evidence that Venezuela's poor are better cared for than ever.
The government this month began an ID system that tracks
shoppers' purchases at subsidized prices in state-run
supermarkets. Officials say that will thwart hoarders and
guarantee an equitable distribution of cheap food to those who
need it, but critics are decrying it as a Cuban-style ration
card that illustrates the shocking state of the economy.
Venezuela's government runs a network of shelters and
feeding centers known as the Negra Hipolita mission, which
operate alongside church institutions like the Mother Teresa
center under a bridge in the San Martin district of Caracas.
There on a recent day, some of those eating a free lentil
soup grumbled that there was no meat - but still gratefully
wolfed down several bowls of food each.
"I've been coming every day for years, I'm one of the family
here," said jobless Vladimir Garcia, 56, taking his time over a
large bowl of soup.
Garcia has been helping organizer Bolivar to queue for the
center's food. "Maybe socialism has done a lot for Venezuela,
but we never had these huge long lines for everything before.
Nor this scarcity of food products," he said.
"It's madness for such a rich nation."
(Writing and additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing
by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray)