CARACAS, Monday October 28, 2013 | Update

Brawls over staples in short supply in Caracas

Fights, punches, and mistreatment are the order of the day in supermarkets across Caracas, in spite of police surveillance

Police officers, the militia, and the People's Guards usually watch over supermarkets, especially when scarce products arrive (Venancio Alcázares)
Monday October 28, 2013  02:43 PM
As if they were war tales, stories of brawls, fistfights, and even blood in Caracas' supermarkets are increasingly frequent. Coming out unharmed from a grocery store, at least without being elbowed, seems a great deed. "I was able to enter without being pushed," Ana Ayesterán celebrated as she left a supermarket in Caricuao, west Caracas. There, she stood in line from 7:00 a.m. to enter the supermarket as soon as it opened at 8 a.m., in order to buy beef at regulated price.

Since violence erupts when scarce staples arrive in grocery stores, police officers, militiamen, and the People's Guard watch over the supermarkets in order to moderate buyers' behavior. Even though the security forces try to control buyers eager for food, violence stories abound.

While waiting in line in a grocery store, Yuseika Méndez told that last week, she left the store covered in sugar, because she struggled with a street vendor over a package of sugar she had in her hands.

The lady behind her in the line commented that she saw a group of people "throwing hands" over a package of corn flour in a supermarket in La Concordia sector, downtown Caracas.

José Ávila said that someone snatched two flour packages from his hands, out of the six packages people were allowed to buy in that supermarket.

For his part, Ramses Zamora witnessed something he had only seen on Internet videos: a blood fight over powdered milk in a hypermarket in Plaza Venezuela, as a fearful police officer only shouted, "Behave yourselves, people."

Shortage and long lines seem like the perfect formula to trigger conflicts among buyers. When powdered milk arrives in a supermarket, ordinary people do not understand that, according to the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) there are 16 staples with a shortage index over 41%; they only know that products could disappear from supermarkets' shelves for two weeks or even a month.

No control

For social psychologist Axel Capriles, shortage is only an additional factor spurring increasing distress in the Venezuelan society. "Shortage has a big symbolic load on collective psychology. The Venezuelan society was always related to abundance, so going through shortage causes such a change of view regarding quality of life and such frustration, that emotions stir in critical moments," he remarked.

Francisco Hernández, justice of the peace in the Sucre municipality, east Caracas, commented that in 14 years, he had never received complaints regarding brawls over food until now. "What have we become? It looks like a field battle. Aggressiveness is running high. Impunity is leading us to solve everything with a fight," he lamented.

This situation is a normal feature of "outbreaks," according to Capriles. "There is a lot of tension, not only because of the lack of basic products, but also due to inflation, insecurity, political polarization... When that bursts, the rules are ignored, the reality gets blurred, boundaries are lost, and we become blind to guards and cops...," he explained.

Translated by Andreína Trujillo