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Economic Crisis Rattles Venezuelan Cattle Ranchers


In Venezuela, the food shortage there is such a crisis that millions of Venezuelans have left the country. In the western plains, ranchers and dairy farmers find themselves pushing up many factors preventing them from ramping up production - everything from gasoline shortages to cattle rustlers. John Otis reports.

JOSE ARTEAGA: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Jose Arteaga leads me on a tour of a slaughterhouse in the western Venezuelan town of Machiques. In the 1990s, it was one of the largest in Latin America. Arteaga and other workers killed and processed 700 beef cattle per day.

ARTEAGA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "There were three shifts. The work was nonstop," Arteaga says.

ARTEAGA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Today, the pens, chutes and killing floors are empty. Due to nationwide blackouts, the facility is dark, with pigeons flying around near the ceiling. The decline of Venezuela's meat and dairy industry has been a long time in the making. It started in the 2000s when Venezuela's socialist government seized numerous ranches and milk plants, as well as the Machiques slaughterhouse, which critics contend was badly managed. More recently, as Venezuela has sunk into its worst economic crisis in history, there's been an outbreak of crime in rural areas.

EZIO ANGELINI: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Ezio Angelini says that thieves recently stole 240 cattle from his Machiques ranch. They offered to release the animals in exchange for a ransom payment.

Twenty-four-thousand-dollar ransom for your 240 head of cattle.

ANGELINI: Yes, that.

OTIS: That's a lot.

ANGELINI: Yes, a lot of money.

OTIS: And you don't have it.

ANGELINI: I don't have it.

OTIS: Ranchers face other hurdles. The collapse of Venezuela's oil industry, coupled with U.S. sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro's authoritarian government, have led to gasoline shortages. Spare parts and vaccines are also scarce, says Paul Marquez, who heads the cattle ranchers federation in Machiques.

PAUL MARQUEZ: We don't have the supplies, tractors or...

OTIS: Gasoline.

MARQUEZ: ...Gasoline, you know, that - all the things to make works in the farm. And we have to reduce the production.

OTIS: A few years ago, Venezuela had 15 million head of cattle. But Marquez says that number has fallen by more than half. Meat production has contracted by two-thirds.

MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But even when meat is available, Marquez says that most Venezuelans are now too poor to purchase it. Now ranchers in Machiques are simply trying to survive.

NESTER ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Among them is Nestor Romero. His 400-acre dairy farm has been in his family for more than 100 years.

ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But he says his two sons have no intention of taking over the farm when Romero retires. One recently left Venezuela and now lives in Dallas.


OTIS: By now it's late afternoon and time to milk the cows. But there's a problem.


OTIS: Blackouts, followed by power surges when the lights come back on, have damaged Romero's storage tanks. Unable to refrigerate his milk, he can't sell it to the milk company in Machiques.


OTIS: So Romero has come up with an old-world solution. He's using his milk to make a type of artisanal cheese that doesn't require refrigeration.

ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Rather than progressing," Romero says, "we're going backwards to prehistoric times." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Machiques, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.