CUMANA (Venezuela) • Venezuela is convulsing from hunger. With delivery trucks under constant attack, the Latin American nation's food is transported under armed guard. Soldiers stand watch over bakeries. Police fire rubber bullets at desperate mobs storming grocery stores and pharmacies. A four-year-old girl was shot to death as street gangs fought over food.
Hundreds of people in the city of Cumana marched on a supermarket in recent days, screaming for food. They forced open a metal gate and poured inside, snatching water, flour, salt and anything they could find, leaving broken freezers and overturned shelves.
And they showed that even in a country with the largest oil reserves in the world, it is possible for people to riot because there is not enough food.
In the last two weeks, over 50 food riots, protests and mass looting cases have erupted around the country. Scores of businesses have been stripped bare or destroyed. At least five people have been killed.
"If there is no food, there will be more riots," said resident Raibelis Henriquez, 19, who waited all day for bread in Cumana, where at least 22 businesses were attacked in a single day last week.
This is precisely the Venezuela its leaders vowed to prevent. In 1989, riots spread from the capital Caracas, leaving hundreds dead at the hands of security forces. They were set off by low oil prices, cuts in subsidies and a population suddenly impoverished.
The event seared the memory of future president Hugo Chavez, who said the country's inability to provide for its people was a reason Venezuela needed a socialist revolution. Now, his successors find themselves in a similar bind - or maybe even worse.
The nation is anxiously searching for ways to feed itself. Economists say years of economic mismanagement - worsened by low prices for oil, the nation's main source of revenue - have shattered the food supply. Staples like corn and rice, once exported, must be imported and are not enough to meet the need.
In response, cities have been militarised under an emergency decree from current President Nicolas Maduro. Using emergency decrees signed this year, Mr Maduro put most food distribution in the hands of a group of citizen brigades loyal to leftists, a measure critics say is reminiscent of food rationing in Cuba.
"They're saying, in other words, you get food if you're my friend, if you're my sympathiser," said Mr Roberto Briceno-Leon, director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a human rights group.
But while riots punctuate the country with alarm, it is the hunger that is the constant source of unease. A staggering 87 per cent of Venezuelans say they do not have money to buy food, the latest review of living standards by Simon Bolivar University found.
About 72 per cent of monthly wages are being spent just to buy food, according to the Centre for Documentation and Social Analysis, a research group. In April, it found that a family would need the equivalent of 16 minimum-wage salaries to properly feed itself. Ask people in this city when they last ate a meal, and many will respond that it was not today.
Among them are Mrs Leidy Cordova, 37, and her five children. On Thursday evening, the entire family had not eaten since lunchtime the day before.
"My kids tell me they're hungry," she said. "And all I can say to them is to grin and bear it."
Other families have to choose who eats. Ms Lucila Fonseca, 69, has lymphatic cancer, and her 45-year- old daughter Vanessa Furtado has a brain tumour. Despite also being ill, Ms Furtado gives up the little food she has on many days so her mother does not skip meals. "I used to be very fat, but no longer," the daughter said. "We are dying as we live."
Mr Gabriel Marquez, 24, grew up in the boom years when Venezuela was rich. As he stood in front of the destroyed supermarket where the mob had arrived in Cumana, he said: "During Carnival, we used to throw eggs at each other just to have some fun.
"Now, an egg is like gold."
NEW YORK TIMES