Grappling with scarcities of sugar, milk, cornmeal and other basic foods, the Venezuelan government has unveiled a new electronic identification system for shoppers that critics say is a modern version of a ration card.
President Nicolas Maduro described it on Tuesday as a means of "safeguarding food sovereignty".
The system will employ electronic fingerprint IDs similar to those used to identify Venezuelan voters to register shoppers who purchase goods at the state-run grocery chains Mercal, Bicentenario and PDVAL. Announcing the system last month, Maduro said it would assure food supplies for 84 per cent of Venezuelans. He did not speak to the impact on the other 16 per cent.
The purpose of the system, Maduro said, was to guard against the purchase of large quantities of food at cut-rate government prices to be marked up and resold on the black market, where some experts have estimated 40 per cent of all subsidised food ends up.
It remains to be seen whether the system will halt the large volumes of low-priced food destined for Mercal markets that end up being sold in Colombian border cities. Venezuelan contraband food reportedly is also sold in Brazil and Cuba.
Although the government has made efforts in recent months to seal the border with Colombia to restrict food contraband from leaving Venezuela, the diversion of subsidised food by hoarders and black marketers is partly responsible for 26 per cent of basic food items having been officially classified as scarce by Venezuela's central bank.
Other reasons cited by analysts for food scarcities include the decline in recent years in farm production they say is caused by price controls that wipe out farmers' profits.