CARACAS (Reuters) - A commission of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress said on Thursday the government overpaid $206 million for food imported from Mexico, stepping up criticism of its handling of a scarcity crisis that charities said is causing more malnutrition.
The congress’ inspection commission said in a preliminary report that between January and June the government bought 7 million boxes of basic foods like rice and cooking oil imported from Mexico by middlemen, paying 55 percent above market prices.
The commission said the over-pricing of the food boxes known as Claps was deliberate and called it corruption.
“This government is addicted to corruption. Not even the hunger of Venezuelans stops it creating new ways to steal,” lawmaker Carlos Paparoni said in the report.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment about the allegations but the government of President Nicolas Maduro often says the congress is part of an economic war aimed at toppling the government.
The Claps program for low-income families began to incorporate products imported from Mexico and Brazil last year amid shortages of Venezuelan products, a situation Maduro blamed on businesses trying to destabilize his administration.
Venezuela is suffering chronic scarcity of basic food products in supermarkets and it has become common to see families scavenging for food in garbage. The Catholic charity Caritas says acute malnutrition among infants had reached levels that could be considered a humanitarian crisis.
With medicines also scarce, government figures show infant mortality up 30 percent to 11,466 cases last year, while maternal mortality jumped by 65 percent.
Angel Dorante, an opposition activist and former rice farmer said he felt ashamed Venezuelan output had collapsed, blaming nationalizations under late leader Hugo Chavez and lack of fertilizers.
“They have completely destroyed the agricultural sector and now we have to rely on food from abroad. How much is that costing?” Dorante said in the town of Sabaneta, Chavez’s birthplace, displaying a Clap bag with rice labeled as produced in the United States and flour and oil from Mexico.
According to the commission’s report, the food imported from Mexico was handled by Postar Intertrade Limited, registered in Barbados and owned by Venezuelan businessman Samark Lopez. Lopez was put on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist in February for alleged drug trafficking.
The products, some bought from a Mexican supermarket chain, are packed in the port of Veracruz, the report said, calculating that the actual cost per box should have been $12.44 including shipping but that they were bought by the government for $42.
Lopez calls himself an acquaintance of Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who also was on the Treasury blacklist.
In a statement at the time Lopez denied being a drug trafficker. He did not respond to an email request for comment for this story.
Lopez’ website says he has good contacts with the government and that Postar is dedicated to building low cost housing in Venezuela.
Reporting by Corina Pons; Editing by Bill Trott