Trucks trundling around Venezuela have taken to displaying a sign that says, "We are not transporting food."
The message — designed to head off assaults — underlines the unrest swirling around the country as Venezuelans struggle to find food amid acute shortages of price-controlled goods. It also reflects the way the worst inflation rate in the world has put the products that are available beyond the reach of the vast majority.
This month seven people died, and 37 were injured, in violent protests and looting related to the search for food, and bungled police efforts to control the situation.
Incidents this week included the ransacking of a government food store in the town of Araya, in the caribbean state of Sucre, which reportedly involved 500 people. It was apparently sparked by locals demanding that the committee in charge of the center sell the food they had in store there.
Cumaná, the state capital of Sucre, was also at the center of a particularly intense wave of looting a few weeks ago, in which one person died and 400 were detained.
On that occasion the authorities blamed criminal groups and highlighted the fact that the looting impacted all kinds of businesses. Others, however, said local residents were obviously involved.
"People will loot anything, not just food," said Roberto Briceño León, of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence. "Everything can be exchanged for something else."
Looters have also targeted schools, emptying kitchen cupboards of corn, flour, butter, and powdered milk. Assaults on school kitchens began in 2015, though there are signs they have increased this year.
This month saw 14 robberies of schools reported in the coastal state of Miranda alone, and an ever growing number of schools are no longer providing free meals to their students — many of whom are consequently forced to go hungry because their families cannot fill the gap these leaves.
The desperation is also fuelled by the absence of any sign that the OPEC-member country is close to emerging from a deep economic recession triggered by the fall of the international oil price. Nor is there any hint of an end to the hyperinflation that led the workers' advocacy group CENDAS to forecast that the cost of basic supplies will increase by 1,000 percent next month.
Watch: Grocery Shopping during Venezuela's shortages
Antonio Pestana, chief of the farming industry association, told reporters recently that shortages of seeds and agrochemicals means only 25 percent of agricultural land is actually being farmed. He predicted that tomato production this year would total 150,000 tons, which is less than a quarter of normal production.
And as domestic production falls, imports are also plummeting. Miguel Pérez Abad, minister of industry and business, told Reuters they are likely to fall by 60 percent this year, compared to 2015.
President Nicolás Maduro, who is currently struggling to survive an effort by the political opposition to force a recall referendum, has repeatedly blamed the private sector for the crisis.
He alleges that business owners are sabotaging the economy in an effort to force him out. Maduro accuses them of wanting to bury the socialist legacy of his popular predecessor, President Hugo Chávez, who created a solid base of support among the poor thanks to oil-subsidized social programs and price-controlled food.
Such goods were in short supply recently at a bakery in the barrio of Chacao in the capital Caracas, where long lines form every day for the single hour that they sell bread to customers who are limited to one stick each.
"We cannot make more subsidized bread with the current cost of flour," said Joao, the baker. "We always end up losing, but we cannot afford to stop making bread either."
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