Chavez Dismisses 3 Ministers Connected with Food Problems in Venezuela

Three ministers, all of whom have been involved in recent problems and irregularities related to food production and distribution in Venezuela, are being asked to leave.

Caracas, Venezuela, February 21, 2006 – Venezuela’s President dismissed the Minister for Land and Agriculture, Antonio Albarran, the Minister for Food, Rafael Oropeza, and the Minister for Light Industry and Commerce, Edmee Betancourt yesterday. All three dismissals are related to irregularities or problems in their respective food-related ministries.

During Albarran’s time at the Ministry of Agriculture there have been corruption scandals and protests by farmers. Also, last week a corruption scandal was made public involving the Land and Agriculture Ministry (MAT), where a group of military officers have been charged with stealing $1.3 million from the Ezequiel Zamora sugar-processing plant owned by MAT.

Albarran was criticized for his handling of the case, when he said he had received a report about the corruption at the Ezequiel Zamora plant in 2004, but did not make it public because, “we were in an election campaign and it would have blown things up.” It was assumed the campaign he was referring to was for the regional elections of October 2004.

A MAT employee speaking on the condition of anonymity said, “There had been rumours Albarran would go even before the Zamora scandal. His general performance was not considered good enough.”

Albarran had been Minister during months of protests by agricultural farmers. Corn, rice, and sorghum producers all held demonstrations outside of the Presidential Palace of Miraflores over government food policy in recent weeks.

With regard to the Minister for Light Industry and Commerce, Edmee Betancourt, it is assumed she takes the fall for politically embarrassing food shortages at the beginning of the year. In December, coffee farmers protesting over price controls got an increase in the price of coffee beans from the ministry. The price at which coffee was sold was not raised as well.

Coffee suppliers said this would mean they would have to sell at a loss. They hoarded the coffee in protest. Other producers joined in and several other foods such as sugar were unavailable for weeks.

The government’s response was to send the National Guard to seize hoarded food, a practice that is illegal in Venezuela. The government also threatened to nationalize companies found hoarding. After negotiations, though, the ministry agreed to a 60% price increase for some of the price controlled food categories.

Similarly, there have been several accusations of corruption in Mercal, the government-run food stores that sell subsidized food to people in poor neighborhoods. The newspaper Últimas Noticias reports that the Minister for Food, Rafael Oropeza, is being asked to take responsibility for these irregularities with his departure.

It has been rumored that Elias Jaua, currently the head of the Ministry for Popular Economy, will take over from Albarran at MAT. The government would not confirm this though.

These are the first ministerial changes for several months in Venezuela. During the first several years of Chavez’s government Ministers were changing positions with far greater frequency.