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Venezuelan Crisis: Ports on the edge (Part 2 of 2)

Peter Stewart, PortandTerminal.com, January 28, 2019

Puerto Cabello is a medium sized town of 193,000 people on the north coast of Venezuela, 210 km west of Caracas, the capital. The coast around the city is dotted with white sandy beaches and the water is postcard perfect turquoise. When times were better, tourism was an important source of revenue for the citizens of the city. The free-spending tourists are gone now though and businesses in Puerto Cabello rely entirely on cash-starved locals to survive.

The Port of Puerto Cabello

Puerto Cabello is home to Venezuela’s largest cargo port. World Port Source classifies the Port of Puerto Cabello as a medium-sized port. In 2015 it had throughput of 438,000 TEU, a drop of 44% compared to just two years earlier (Source: UNECLAC, May 2016). More recent TEU figures are hard to come by but would certainly be worse given the crisis the country finds itself in now.

Oil exports account for 95% of Venezuela’s exports and generate almost all of the hard currency the country requires to import essentials such as medicine, food, parts and machinery. Oil exports though have dropped by half since 2013.

Venezuela’s main port for exporting oil is Puerto José located about 500 km east along the coast from Puerto Cabello. While Puerto José exports about two-thirds of the country’s oil, Puerto Cabello is also home to the state-run PDVSA’s El Palito refinery.

Two former employees told Canada’s CBC News that the refinery though is only running at 50 per cent capacity. In another recent blow, two days ago the Trump administration announced that it will block all U.S. revenue to PDVSA, the state-run oil company, in a bid to force Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from office.

PDVSA’s El Palito refinery at Puerto Cabello

In better times Puerto Cabello used to see an almost endless line of ocean-going freighters delivering goods from across the world. When the price of oil was high, the Venezuelan government could easily afford to import products with revenue from oil, the country’s only significant export.

The few ships that do arrive at Puerto Cabello these days bring much-needed supplies to a country that is on its heels.

Puerto Cabello is not an easy port of call any more though. Venezuelan state agencies have run up close to $1 billion (695 million pounds) in debts with shipping firms due to delays in returning containers, boosting the cost of importing staple goods as the country struggles with product shortages and an economic crisis.

There have also been incidents of violence against crews of ships arriving in Puerto Cabello’s harbour. Crews are now recommended to remain on board at all times if possible when in port.

In one incident reported by the Associated Press 12 months ago, a swarm of people attacked a truck carrying corn as it left the docks at Puerto Cabello in a frenzy fill up their sacks with the corn it was carrying to a food-processing plant. The driver was held at gunpoint.

The people of Puerto Cabello

Life for the 193,000 inhabitants of Puerto Cabello has become a bitter daily struggle as it has for the people of Venezuela in general. Nearly 90 percent of Venezuelans now live in poverty. One in 10 Venezuelans, 3 million people, have left their country out of desperation. That’s the same number of Syrians who have fled their country since war broke out.

By 2018, according to a report produced by three Venezuelan universities, only one in 10 Venezuelans could afford enough daily food.

The Maduro diet

When cash started running low and debts started piling up, Venezuela’s socialist government cut back sharply on food imports.

In the past year, 74.3% of the population has lost weight — an average of 8.7 kilograms (19 pounds) per person – because of food scarcity, according to a recent study by three of Caracas’ largest universities (UCAB, USB and UCV) and the nonprofit Bengoa Foundation. This collective emaciation is referred to dryly here as “the Maduro diet”.

Residents tell of children starving to death and of people forming human chains to block roads to hijack trucks just to get food. 

Susan Shulman, “Hunger and survival in Venezuela”, Nov. 21, 2018

As inflation continues to spiral upwards and poverty escalates –jumping from 81.8 to 87 percent between 2016 and 2017 – people have become reliant on irregular and insufficient government food handouts called “CLAPs” to supplement their impoverished diets. According to the government, six million families receive the benefit, from a population of around 30 million people.

Growing anger and desperation

There is not much official information about what is happening in the country, with most of the messages and videos coming from either social networks or non-governmental organizations. There are reports though of sporadic looting, food riots and protests driven by the hungry poor throughout the country.

Rioting broke out a week ago in Puerto Cabello and protesters torched a police facility. “If you have to burn those barracks, then burn them, and know those unfortunates who defend that narco-regime have just a few hours (left) to join the people who fight” said one frustrated Venezulean as he commented on the video below.

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