Archdiocese’s Venezuelan mission parish suffering in food crisis

| July 29, 2016 | 2 Comments
Yunni Perez holds plastic bottles used to carry water while she poses for a photo April 3 inside her home in a slum area of Caracas, Venezuela. CNS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, EPA

Yunni Perez holds plastic bottles used to carry water while she poses for a photo April 3 inside her home in a slum area of Caracas, Venezuela. CNS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, EPA

As the food crisis in Venezuela continues with no end in sight, the mission parish of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in that country continues to suffer.

“Everybody’s just going hungry,” said Father Greg Schaffer, pastor of Jesucristo Resucitado in San Felix, Venezuela, who last month was named vicar general of the Diocese of Ciudad Guayana. “You go to the grocery store and the shelves are bare.”

News reports describe a crisis that began in 2014, fueled by a severe drop in the price of oil, the country’s main export and the bedrock of its economy. Further exacerbating the problem is the ineffectiveness of the government, led by President Nicholas Maduro, whom some citizens believe is indifferent to their plight.

People having to wait in line for up to eight hours to buy food, said Father Schaffer, who has pastored the mission parish for 19 years. Hungry Venezuelans will show up at grocery stores as early as 3 a.m. to wait for a delivery truck to arrive. And, sometimes, the truck runs out of food before everyone has a chance to buy what they need.

The result is frustration that sometimes turns into violence, with desperate people breaking delivery truck windows and causing other damage when they are turned away after the food runs out.

“Everybody just has to wait in line [for food]; there’s no way around it,” Father Schaffer said. “You don’t know what time the truck is going to come and you don’t even know what’s in the truck, but you know it’s something you’re going to need. And so, you just wait in line. Then, you just buy whatever they have.”

The poor of Father Schaffer’s parish are also grappling with prices that make even the most basic food items almost unaffordable.

“For example, if you’re lucky enough to have a job that pays minimum wage and has benefits, it’s three days’ salary to buy one chicken and two days’ salary for a kilo of beef,” he said. “It’s hard to find rice. Sugar is really hard to find.”

Right now, Father Schaffer is directing food to the poorest of the poor in his parish and the neighborhoods it serves. He has been able to continue operating a soup kitchen that feeds lunch to 42 people daily Monday through Friday.

Exacerbating the crisis is a shortage of medicine, which results in untreated conditions that normally respond well to basic medicines. Sometimes, the results are fatal.

“People are dying a lot earlier because it’s hard to get basic medicines like antibiotics,” Father Schaffer said.

A group of seminarians from the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul recently had a firsthand look at the crisis and its effects on the people of Jesucristo Resucitado. Seminary Professor Father Scott Carl was in Venezuela July 11-22 with three archdiocesan seminarians — Aric Aamodt and Deacons Ben Wittnebel and Bryce Evans.

“It’s very difficult to see [people hungry and suffering],” said Father Carl, who made his sixth trip to Venezuela and the mission parish. “It makes it more real. . . . Seeing someone in person is the difference between a hug and reading a newspaper article. You experience the kindness and warmth of a person who’s struggling. You feel that this is your brother and sister.”

Father Schaffer said no humanitarian aid has reached his parish.

Although Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, serves more than 100 countries worldwide, Venezuela is not one of them. Jossie Sapunar, a communications specialist for CRS, said an invitation has to come before CRS can respond.

“We have to be welcomed,” she said. “We can’t work in secret [without the approval of the government].”

When CRS does enter a country, she said, it doesn’t just bring in food, but tries to help the citizens devise ways to meet their own needs by producing food within their communities.

Despite the lack of outside assistance, Father Schaffer remains hopeful — and continues to see God at work.

“You see more people helping one another,” he said. “You see God in people helping one another, sharing what little they have.”

To help meet the need, Father Schaffer and people in the parish are looking for ways to generate food within the community. Several options have been explored, including creating a fish farm and hydroponic agriculture. Father Schaffer has also consulted faculty in the engineering program at the University of St. Thomas, and he’s hoping that the conversations will lead to new food sources.

In the meantime, people are taking advantage of native fruits in the region, including bananas and mangoes.

“There’s lots of fresh fruit,” he said. “We get fresh fruit juice, which is really good. We can get some fish, but fish, beef and chicken are hard to come by. We’ve tried raising chickens, but the problem is you can’t get the feed. The feed is imported, and the feed for the chickens is really, really expensive and that’s what drives up the price for the chickens.”

For people here in the archdiocese who may wonder what they can do, Father Schaffer has simple advice — pray.

“That’s the biggest [thing],” he said. “Just pray that people can get fed, that people can get a fair wage for their work.”

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Category: Featured, Local News

  • Charles C.

    “News reports describe a crisis that began in 2014, fueled by a severe drop in the price of oil, the country’s main export and the bedrock of its economy. Further exacerbating the problem is the ineffectiveness of the government, led by President Nicholas Maduro, whom some citizens believe is indifferent to their plight.”

    That’s probably the gentlest, and most misleading, explanation for the cause of Venezuela’s problems which I have seen.

    A more accurate explanation is that, beginning with Chavez and continuing with Maduro, the Socialist government of Venezuela has considered the oil industry to be their personal bank. They have drained that money from the country, bought popularity, and neglected to create (or have destroyed) the country’s productive sector.

    “By IMF figures it has the world’s worst negative growth rate (-8%), and the worst
    inflation rate (482%). The unemployment rate is 17% but is expected to climb to near 30% in the coming few years.”

    Why has this hit Venezuela so hard when falling oil prices are world-wide and other countries have economies heavily dependent on oil?

    “According to Transparency International, Venezuela is the ninth most corrupt country in the world. Members of Maduro’s family and immediate entourage have been implicated in drug smuggling and hundreds of billions of dollars are believed to have been siphoned out of the economy.”

    “His [an opposition politician’s] campaign to highlight how the Chavez clan has enriched itself has plenty of sympathizers in Barinas, a poor town which sits amid
    agricultural plains 300 miles southwest of Caracas in one of Venezuela’s regions.

    “Here the late-president’s family owns 17 country estates, totaling more than 100,000 acres, in addition to liquid assets of $550 million (£360 million) stored in various international bank accounts, according to Venezuelan news website Noticias Centro.”

    But Chavez has a large share of the blame for reasons other than personal corruption.

    “Chávez build his popularity on oil money and foreign debt, using both to fund consumption, while nationalizing more than 1,200 private companies deemed not to be functioning in the public interest. But in 2015 the oil price was cut in half and Venezuela’s reckless public finances helped make it a high-risk debtor, cutting the country’s access to international capital.

    “The Maduro government has responded to the consequent hole in public finances by printing money, fueling inflation. It’s estimated that the cost of basic groceries that would keep a family going through a week increased by more than 25% between March and April, and now costs 22 times the state minimum salary.”

    “Catholic bishops, never friendly to the regime, published an unusually hard-hitting pastoral letter this month [January, 2015] that laid the blame for the crisis squarely on the “totalitarian and centralist system”. Its architects may be powerless to prevent its collapse.”

    Perhaps that’s the saddest part of the whole crisis. The Maduro government is engaging in censorship, arrests, and violence to stop the protests, but is not willing to take any steps indicating it is willing to change its destructive policies. It seems unwilling to attempt to prevent the collapse. Sure, send them food and medicine if you’d like, but most will end up in the hands of the black marketeers. “You can give a man a fish . . .”

    Venezuela is committing suicide, it’s not being killed by external events.

    • Charles C.

      Here’s the latest attempt by Maduro and his proudly Socialist government to survive, from CNN:

      “A new decree by Venezuela’s government could make its citizens work on farms to tackle the country’s severe food shortages. That “effectively amounts to forced labor,” according to Amnesty International, which derided the decree as “unlawful.”

      “In a vaguely-worded decree, Venezuelan officials indicated that public
      and private sector employees could be forced to work in the country’s
      fields for at least 60-day periods, which may be extended “if
      circumstances merit.”

      “Trying to tackle Venezuela’s severe food shortages by forcing people to
      work the fields is like trying to fix a broken leg with a band aid,”
      Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas’ Director at Amnesty International, said
      in a statement.”

      He’s treating symptoms instead of dealing with the disease.