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A growing, catastrophic food crisis sows unrest in Venezuela

September 1, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT

HARI SREENIVASAN: In Caracas, today, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans turned out to protest against President Nicolas Maduro’s government and called for an end to his rule.

The country has been plagued by a deepening economic crisis, corruption, crime, all of which have contributed to a worsening food shortage.

Nathan Halverson of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting recently visited Caracas,.

NATHAN HALVERSON: Well before sunrise, hungry Venezuelans are waiting outside grocery stores praying for food trucks to arrive. By mid-morning, with streets crowded with anxious faces, there is little hope.

WOMAN (through translator): There is only butter and oil. We need them to send us more food.

QUESTION (through translator): When did you get here?

WOMAN (through translator): At 4:00 a.m.

MAN (through translator): I got here at 8:00 p.m. last night.

As Venezuelans watch their country crumble and their desperation and hunger spill into the streets, their anger with President Nicolas Maduro and his party has become explosive.

WOMAN (through translator): This is what’s happening in Venezuela. We’re starving. We’re struggling, thanks to this government. It’s the Maduro diet.

NATHAN HALVERSON: Police now guard grocery stores across the country, holding back the hungry and volatile mobs.

MAN (through translator): Why are you taking me out of line? I was here early. I also need food.

NATHAN HALVERSON: Some 90 percent of Venezuelans now report that food has become too expensive to buy. Hungry mobs are increasingly rioting and looting bakeries and food trucks. This has forced everyday people to try and calm desperate crowds, like this grocery store manager.

MAN (through translator): We don’t produce the food. Everyone is waiting for something to arrive. If it doesn’t arrive, we can’t create food from nothing.

NATHAN HALVERSON: People are losing hope that the government-controlled system will supply key items. And they blame the socialist government for the scarcity.

MAN (through translator): It’s one article of food per person, and then you have to wait eight days, because if you try to buy more, they will stop you.

NATHAN HALVERSON: The result is hunger, and a country increasingly turning against President Nicolas Maduro.

PAULA GIRAUD, Journalist (through translator): My friends have lost weight, 15, 20, 25 pounds even.

NATHAN HALVERSON: Paula Giraud is a journalist who writes a food blog about the country’s rapidly worsening situation.

PAULA GIRAUD (through translator): I’m afraid there will be, although the government doesn’t want to see it, and I don’t want to either, a social explosion of immense proportions.

NATHAN HALVERSON: Usually, her only meal for an entire day is one egg.

PAULA GIRAUD: Only one egg, no more.

NATHAN HALVERSON: And she has to share it with her dog.

The impacts are widespread. Schoolchildren are fainting from hunger.

CHILD (through translator): In my house, there is no food.

NATHAN HALVERSON: School principal Malkis Mochado (ph) says some students don’t even have the energy to attend.

WOMAN: When you were absent from school, why didn’t you come?

CHILD (through translator): Because I had nothing to eat.

NATHAN HALVERSON: The school now provides what is sometimes the only meal these children eat. Food has become political.

In August, the opposition party started this school lunch program, winning the gratitude of a hungry community. But, for others, food still remains hard to find.

MAN (through translator): I have a job, but what’s the point? My salary is worth nothing. Right now, you can’t even get rice or corn flour. For everything, you have to wait in line.

NATHAN HALVERSON: After work, men gather on street corners to scavenge for food, rather than skip work to wait in line all day. These workers once shopped at government-subsidized grocery stores like this one once, but now the shelves here are completely empty.

But for some well-connected people, there are still reliable sources of food. Government employees receive privileged access at this warehouse. These are government workers and their friends carting off items that most Venezuelans can no longer afford or even find on the shelves.

Paula Giraud said the government is using the food to control people, to buy their support, and was outraged by what we filmed.

PAULA GIRAUD (through translator): Every week in the country, the hunger increases. The shortages increase and the corruption increases. That’s what millions and millions of Venezuelans are enduring.

NATHAN HALVERSON: For the country, the societal explosion that many fear seems to be inching closer every day.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Nathan Halverson in Caracas.