Venezuela introduces Cuba-like food card
BY ANTONIO MARIA DELGADO
Presented by President Hugo Chávez as an instrument to make shopping
for groceries easier, the "Good Life Card'' is making various segments
of the population wary because they see it as a furtive attempt to introduce
a rationing card similar to the one in Cuba.
The measure could easily become a mechanism to control the population, according to civil society groups.
"We see that in short-term this could become a rationing card probably similar to the one used in Cuba,'' Roberto León Parilli, president of the National Association of Users and Consumers, told El Nuevo Herald. "It would use more advanced technological means [than those used in Cuba], but when they tell you where to buy and what the limits of what you can buy are, they are conditioning your purchases.''
Chávez said Tuesday that the card could be used to buy groceries at the government chain of markets and supplies.
"I have called it a Good Life Card so far,'' Chávez said in a brief statement made on the government television channel. "It's a card for you to purchase what you are going to take and they keep deducting. It's to buy what you need, not to promote communism, but to buy what just what you need.''
Former director of Venezuela's Central Bank, Domingo Maza Zavala, said this could become a rationing card that would limit your purchases in light of the country's recurring problems with supplies.
"If the intention is to beat inflation, they should find a good source of supply for the entire market and not only for centers that are part of social chains,'' he said. "To do that, you need to encourage local production with the help of the private sector, since they cannot do it by themselves. The government cannot become the ultimate food distributor.''
Humberto Ortega Díaz, minister for public banking and president of the Venezuelan Bank, minimized such criticism and said that all this measure is trying to do is to improve service at the government supply chains.
"Why can't our Bicentennial chain use a card to make it easier for customers to buy their groceries?'' the minister said in an interview broadcast on a government channel. He said that this type of initiative has been used by private commercial entities.
Yet, critics pointed out that the measure could turn out not as innocent as the minister makes it to be, and they insist that the government control over the supply chain is too broad and depends greatly on imports the government authorizes through its currency exchange system.
In theory, the government could begin to favor the import of products to be sold through the government chains and have more control over the type of products purchased and the people buying them.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said that Venezuela's current problems of scarce supplies are very similar to those Cuba faced when Fidel Castro introduced the rationing card.
"The card emerged when goods began to become scarce,'' Suchlicki said. "The government had seized many companies that did not work because the government managed them poorly. Then they decided to distribute groceries through those cards.''
And although the cards were introduced as a mechanism to deal with scarcities, Suchlicki said, they later became an instrument of control.
"People depended on the government to eat, and nothing gives you more
power than having people depend on you to get their food quota,'' he said.