Venezuela crisis evokes memories of Cuba's 'Special Period'

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Liliana Rojas shows her empty refrigerator at her home in the poor neighbourhood of Catia, Caracas, June 2, 2016.Image source, AFP
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Venezuelans say they are struggling to find food to fill their fridges

The crisis in Venezuela shows little sign of easing up.

Inflation is among the highest in the world, there are long queues for basic goods and the atmosphere on the streets is becoming increasingly agitated.

Meanwhile politicians on both sides are so hostile to each other, a political solution remains remote.

For years, the opposition in Venezuela has claimed the country was "becoming another Cuba" but such claims were rarely given much credence, or dismissed as hyperbole.

But the BBC's Will Grant, who has lived in both countries, says there are growing parallels to a specific point in Cuba's past.

Suffering and austerity

Etched into Cuba's collective memory is its infamous Special Period.

Image source, AFP
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Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro were close friends and allies

A reference to the years just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is a time forever synonymous with suffering, austerity and hunger on the communist island.

Without its wealthier benefactors in Eastern Europe, Cuba struggled to provide enough food for its people.

The stories from those days are legion. People remember selling family heirlooms to buy food and even stray cats ending up in the cooking pot.

Whether the tales are apocryphal or not, Cuba was certainly on its knees economically, and largely remained that way until a leftist former soldier took power in Venezuela.

Once Hugo Chavez became the president of Venezuela, which has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, things quickly started to look up for Cuba.

Mr Chavez aligned closely with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and began to fill the gap that the Soviets had left behind.

Troubled ally

These days, though, Venezuela is the more troubled of the two socialist allies.

Having lived in Venezuela at the height of Mr Chavez's power, when oil was worth more than $130 a barrel, and having last visited Caracas in April 2013 when Nicolas Maduro was elected president, it was quite a shock to see for myself how quickly things have deteriorated.

While the place was always chaotic, run by a sort of live-television ad-hoc form of policy making, I have never seen it quite like this.

We encountered the first queue, snaking back for over a block, almost as soon as we emerged into the west of the capital from the airport.

Image source, AFP
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Long queues form wherever Caracas residents think they can get food

It did not take long to see lots more.

As in Cuba, the government subsidises and controls the prices of certain basic goods.

Now, with inflation spiralling, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans spend their days waiting outside stores for bread, flour, baby milk, cooking oil, nappies and toilet paper.

Worse still, many join those queues based on rumour alone, in the forlorn hope of finding those products on the shelves only to be turned away empty handed after hours in the blistering sun.

Blessing in disguise

Needless to say, in such circumstances, tempers can easily fray.

Image source, AFP
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National guards try to keep the peace in queues

"We don't sell the subsidised goods," explains Sonia, a 40-year-old storeowner who provided us a little refuge from the pushing and shoving unfolding in the street outside her shop.

As we stand on her roof terrace, a healthy distance away from the soldiers who had tried to stop us from recording and to confiscate our equipment, Sonia explains how she and her husband were initially disappointed that they had not been granted the concession to sell government-regulated products a few years ago.

But now, she says, it has saved them from the madness that their competitors on the other side of the road are dealing with on a daily basis - desperate crowds and armed troops at the door, the spectre of looting constantly hanging over them.

"People can end up killing each other in these situations," she comments, tears forming in her eyes.

"It's sad, so sad to live like this. We have young daughters and at times, even we have to resort to buying from the black market."

As we watch the troops corralling the queue into order, Sonia points out people she says are "bachaqueros", price speculators and black marketeers who wait in line to purchase food not for their families but to sell on at a huge profit.

The black market for basic goods has been thriving in Cuba for decades. It now looks set to become a common feature in Venezuela too.

"Venezuelans are good people", she says. "We really don't deserve any of this."

'Petty dictator'

Meanwhile, President Maduro came to a regional summit in Cuba to drum up support in his war of words with Luis Almagro, the head of regional body the Organization of American States.

Image source, AP
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President Maduro, right, travelled to Cuba to enlist support earlier this month

The latter recently said the Venezuelan president was in danger of becoming just another "petty dictator in Latin America" and proposed invoking the organisation's democratic charter against him.

Cue some pretty earthy language from President Maduro: "I suggest you put this democratic charter in a very thin tube and find a better use for it, Mr Almagro. You can shove that democratic charter wherever it fits."

Of course, back when Cuba was battling through its darkest economic days, Venezuela was very cosy with Washington. President George Bush Snr visited Caracas in 1990, Bill Clinton seven years later.

As Nicolas Maduro left Cuba, an island which first formed his socialist ideals, the irony cannot have escaped him - one country recently entertaining the US president as a friend, the other on the brink of economic collapse.

Venezuela's Special Period may only just be starting.

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