By Margioni Bermúdez
CARACAS, Venezuela”•“We have gone back about two centuries,” groans farmer Alfonso Morales who, for a lack of diesel in oil-rich Venezuela, must now rely on oxen to plow his land.
“Plowing a hectare with oxen takes three or four days. With a tractor it is only about five hours,” Morales, 28, told AFP by telephone from Merida in the Andes mountains, where he is finding it increasingly difficult to eke out a living.
Venezuela’s deep economic slump, worsened by US sanctions, has seen the former oil giant run low on fuel for domestic use”•a deficiency felt even more acutely in the South American country’s rural, food-growing parts than in the capital, Caracas.
At its height, Venezuela, with the world’s largest oil reserves, was producing more than three million barrels per day”•by far its largest export and revenue source, with America its biggest client.
According to the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), the country has some 304 billion barrels of crude reserves.
Today, production is less than 500,000 barrels of crude per day, due to what analysts say is chronic mismanagement, corruption and under-investment.
Not meeting demand
Refineries, which have a capacity to process 1.3 million barrels per day, have been largely paralyzed too.
Ivan Freitas, a former oil sector unionist now in exile in Bogota, says Venezuela is refining no more than 45,000 barrels a day”•not even a quarter of its domestic demand.
But fuel imports have been all but frozen by US sanctions to punish socialist President Nicolas Maduro, whose 2018 re-election is not recognized by Washington and a number of other capitals.
Until November 2020, fuel had been exempted from sanctions on humanitarian grounds, but this exception has since been lifted”•stalling the tractors needed to plow, sow and harvest, the pumps for irrigation, and trucks for transportation.
Diesel is also vital for electricity generators in areas plagued by constant blackouts, as well as for the transportation of medicines and passengers.
Not Maduro being punished
The US measures “affect the people more (than the leaders being targeted),” said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Datanalisis research company.
He cited an opinion poll this month that showed nearly three-quarters of Venezuelans oppose the sanctions”•more than who say they support the political opposition.
“They are not taking the diesel from Maduro, it is needed for the transport of people, food transport… You’re crippling the distribution system, increasing the living costs of an impoverished population… in a pandemic,” he added.
Farmers are warning of imminent collapse of the “agro-food system” due to the loss of crops and difficulties in producing meat, milk and eggs.
The Venezuelan agricultural union Fedeagro said the harvest of beans”•a staple”•was projected to be a third smaller as land could not be harvested due to a lack of fuel.
Some 400,000 tons of sugar cane remain on the land, unharvested.
Morales remembers a time when fuel was so cheap it was almost free. Nowadays, transporting a truck of vegetables from Merida to Caracas some 700 kilometers (435 miles) away, requires paying about $300 on the black market for fuel.
Running a tractor on the farm has become nigh unaffordable.
Traditionally, said Morales, “oxen have been used in mountainous areas which tractors cannot access.”
But nowadays, “we see more and more oxen plowing the soil” even on the flat parts.
“That the harvest is lost due to lack of fuel is regrettable,” he said.