|Venezuela's President Chavez announcing the expansion of Mission Mercal during his weekly telelvision program Alo Presidente.|
Caracas, Venezuela, June 27, 2005—Yesterday, during his weekly television program Aló Presidente, Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez announced the second stage of the Mission Mercal with the approval of an addition $295 million. This money is designated towards expanding the network to provide 60 percent of the population, or roughly 15 million Venezuelans, with high quality basic food staples at up to a 50 percent discount by the end of the year. Chávez also inaugurated another 1,000 food houses (casas de alimentación), or soup kitchens, that are expected to be up and running by the mid July.
Mercal is the largest storage, distribution and wholesale food stuffs network in Venezuela’s history. Dating back to April, 2003, Mercal was one of the programs created by the Chavez government to counter the country’s massive dependency on imported food products. Currently the Mercal network consists of 14,000 stores and supplies 10 million Venezuelans with government subsidized food.
Using Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables as a point of reference for the socio-economic divisions in a capitalist society, Chávez, alongside the Minister of Alimentation, General Rafael Oropeza and the Governor of the state of Falcón, Jesús Montilla, emphasized the importance of guaranteeing Venezuela’s food sovereignty as well as the meeting the basic necessities of the Venezuelan people. “It is a bridge towards life,” Chávez declared, adding that “this is socialism; capitalism is the kingdom of inequality, and in our country equality must be for everyone.”
Additionally, Chávez inaugurated 1,000 food houses and announced that they will open their doors by July 15th. A food house, basically the equivalent of a US soup kitchen, targets groups such as senior citizens, pregnant women, and disabled persons, living in the most destitute conditions and provides them with a free lunch and an afternoon snack. Combined, these two meals contain 79 percent of a person’s daily caloric needs.
Currently, there are 4,052 food houses that serve 600,000 people. With the opening of the 1,000 additional food houses, over 900,000 people will be served. It is expected that yet another 1,000 food houses will be opened within the next month, bringing the total to over 6,000.
“Who can study, play, write or take up arms to defend the fatherland if they are hungry?” Chávez asked while visiting one of the food houses.
The Alimentation Ministry also announced that monthly scholarships of $83.70 will be turned in to all of the helpers of the food houses so that they construct recreation spaces for senior citizens around the food houses, which will become the new axis of community interaction.
Citgo Funds Mercal
Chavez explained that the expansion of Mission Mercal was possible due to profits obtained from Citgo, the refining and gas station chain Venezuela owns in the U.S. In 2004 Citgo provided $445 million in dividends to its parent company, the state-owned oil company PDVSA. This money was turned over directly to PDVSA's social fund, which is being used to fund the Mercal expansion.
“This company [Citgo] never provided dividends to Venezuela. 14,000 gas stations and eight refineries and the profits that this company had since [Venezuela] bought it have remained in the U.S.,” said Chavez during his television program. “Now we decide what to do with the profits,” he added.