June 02, 2008
A May 19 statement from the Venezuelan vice minister of food saying that Colombia would slash its meat exports to Venezuela appears to have been false. However, it points to a real need by Caracas to find a scapegoat for skyrocketing food prices.
Stratfor reported May 19 on a statement by Venezuelan Vice Minister of Food Rafael Coronado Patino claiming that Colombia planned to reduce its meat exports to Venezuela by 98 percent. Colombian authorities immediately issued an official denial of the statement, saying that exports to all of Colombia's trade partners would remain stable. Representatives of the Venezuelan Ministry of Food are now denying that an official statement was made at all, though according to Venezuelan daily El Universal, Coronado Patino made it in a public setting.
At this point, we have little doubt that the statement was false — it was part and parcel of the atmospherics in Venezuela's ongoing diplomatic spat with Colombia. However, the implications of the false statement may be important in themselves. With global oil and food prices at unprecedented highs, Venezuela is one of the many countries where an economic pinch is turning to a squeeze. The public will want someone to blame, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez does not want it to be him.
Shortages of meat and other foods have already been a problem in Venezuela for quite some time. The government is struggling to find ways to meet domestic needs in the face of skyrocketing inflation. Measures to combat shortages have ranged from nationalizations of grocery stores and slaughterhouses to the lifting of import tariffs on foodstuffs to barter deals with foreign countries.
As food prices rise globally, Venezuela's problem is likely to become more acute — so it is possible that the statement about Colombia cutting its exports was made in order to pin the blame on Bogota for an anticipated future scarcity. Given the lack of follow-through by the Venezuelan government on pursuing the issue, it was not likely a key point for Venezuelan propaganda. In fact, given the later denials by the ministry, it may have been a one-off from an ill-advised vice minister.
The statement might have been a misstep, but it points to a fundamental truth. The Chavez government relies on popular support to maintain power, and the poor are the hardest hit by rising prices and food shortages. As the situation becomes more dire in the face of spiraling commodity prices, Chavez will have a growing need to find a scapegoat on which to focus public discontent if he is to avoid being blamed himself. With diplomatic tensions already high between Bogota and Caracas, the Chavez government is likely to look for ways to deflect Venezuelan public anger westward toward Colombia.