Every three days or so, a line of people forms behind a semi truck in Plaza Vicente in the western Venezuelan city of Mérida. On a recent Tuesday, palettes stacked with ultra-pasteurized milk, flour, sugar and other essentials were unloaded from a Hamburg Süd cargo container and sold on the street for about half the supermarket price.
This isn’t the work of contraband smugglers, though. It’s all completely legal, brought to the community by the Venezuelan Production and Food Distribution (PDVAL) network.
An initiative of former President Hugo Chávez and Venezuela’s petroleum industry, PDVAL was created in 2008 in response to widespread speculation at the time that private supermarkets were stockpiling food and keeping it from the public.
A banner hanging over the streetside ‘pop-up shop’ in Plaza Vicente said PDVAL was carryout part of their food supply security plan (Plan de Abastecimiento Seguro). The man managing the distribution said they had been selling food at this location every few days for the last five months, as well as at other sites within Mérida and in the state of Táchira, on the border with Colombia.
For 300 Bolivares (Bs) — about $3 USD according to the black market rate; about $48 USD according to the official government rate — each person could buy a package that included:
- 3 kg rice
- 3 kg flour
- 3 kg sugar
- Two small bags of coffee
- Two liters of ultra-pasteurized milk
- One jar of mayonnaise
Whole frozen chickens were also on sale for 40 Bs, and deals on cuts of beef and pork offered street shoppers the chance to pay 74 Bs for a first cut and 60 Bs for the second. In comparison, a whole chicken at a private supermarket in Venezuela costs between 80 Bs and 100 Bs — at least two times the price in Plaza Vicente.
Unlike with other PDVAL food security programs, shoppers were not asked to provide any personal information. They simply paid in cash and left with their food, which many said would supplement the food they were permitted to buy every week at supermarkets.
When asked where the food came from, one woman in line assumed that it was food from Brazil, likely turned back trying to cross from Venezuela into Colombia due to night closures at the border that began in early August in an attempt to cut down on contraband. The manager of the food drop first simply said the food was “from Maduro,” then later admitted he knew the milk and chicken, at least, came from Brazil.
Another woman waiting to buy food said the pop-up store usually came to the area on Friday or Saturday, and that this was the first Tuesday she had stood in line. Typically, she goes first to a nearby plaza where there is often another drop of just meat, then she makes her way to Plaza Vicente to line up for milk and other staples.
“It’s a lot of waiting,” she said, “but it’s worth the effort.”