Venezuela food crisis triggers mounting protests

Venezuela had the worst inflation in the world last year, 180.9 percent. The figure is on track to hit 700 percent this year, says IMF.

Venezuela food crisis triggers mounting protests

Caracas: Jose Salazar is waving a fistful of Venezuelan bolivars in the middle of a Caracas street.

"What do I do with this money?" demands the angry retiree and grandfather, one of dozens of Venezuelans who blocked an avenue in the capital Wednesday in protest against the food shortages ravaging the troubled country.

Similar scenes have broken out on an almost daily basis in towns and cities across Venezuela, a once-booming oil producer that has skidded to the brink of collapse as global crude prices have plunged.

Salazar said he was looking for food for his family, but there was none to be found in the supermarkets.

So he joined a spontaneous protest with other residents of Petare, an impoverished neighborhood in eastern Caracas, who were all facing the same predicament and venting their anger against leftist President Nicolas Maduro.

"Get out Nicolas Maduro," and "Referendum!" they shouted -- a reference to the opposition`s push to call a referendum on sacking the unpopular president.

"We`re hungry. We want food. Expensive, cheap, imported, whatever. It doesn`t matter. But we need food," said protester Tairon Rincon.

Police soon broke them up with tear gas and rubber bullets.

But hours later another protest broke out in the middle class neighborhood of Los Ruices.

Similar ones had erupted in the previous 24 hours in cities across Venezuela, including Valera, San Juan de los Morros and Porlamar, according to press reports.Sometimes the protests escalate into looting sprees.

The Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, a monitoring group, says 254 incidents of looting or attempted looting erupted in the first five months of the year.

There were 2,779 protests over shortages or interrupted water and electricity supplies in the same period, the group says.

Food, medicine and basic goods like toilet paper, deodorant and diapers are all in short supply, and a drought and electricity crisis have exacerbated Venezuelans` hardships.

As the Petare protest flared, bus drivers were staging their own protest in front of the transportation ministry over the lack of spare parts for their vehicles.

"Now we have problems getting batteries, tires, oil. The gasoline price has gone up. This business just isn`t bringing in enough," said Alfonso Rangel.

Drivers put signs outside the ministry asking "Where are the tires and batteries, Mr. Minister?"

"More than 70 percent of the fleet is off the road," said protester Jose Luis Montoya. "The buses` tires are all bald.... We`re risking our passengers` lives and our own."Maduro has long dismissed the center-right opposition as elitist, and their protests against his government as a capitalist conspiracy.

But spontaneous protests like the ones by the bus drivers and the residents of Petare hit closer to home.

Maduro himself is a former bus driver, and Petare is the kind of neighborhood that used to be bastions for the Socialist leader and his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

But the crisis has badly damaged Maduro`s popularity, which is in the 20s halfway into his six-year term.

The scarcity of goods has sent prices soaring.

Venezuela had the worst inflation in the world last year, 180.9 percent.

The figure is on track to hit 700 percent this year, says the International Monetary Fund.