Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Venezuelans are going hungry. But the country’s Olympians will get free housing and cash.


August 22

Yulimar Rojas of Venezuela celebrates winning the silver medal in the event. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

As a young man, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro played electric guitar, not sports. But like the men who mentored him, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the late Hugo Chávez, he views the country’s Olympic achievements as a validation of his economic and social policies. Also, he is fond of wearing track suits in the colors of the national flag.

It’s perhaps understandable, then, that Maduro was in a generous mood Monday when he welcomed home the 87 members of his country’s Olympic team with the announcement that they would all receive free houses and cash.

To be sure, plenty of Olympic athletes around the world reap material rewards from their governments and sponsors for their athletic feats. But in Venezuela, a country where you can spend more time waiting in a supermarket line than it takes to run a marathon, cash is perhaps the last thing the government has to give away.

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Facing a national food crisis, Venezuela's pumpkin-growing socialist president is exhorting compatriots to grow fruit and vegetables on balconies and roofs and in barracks across the country. (Reuters)

Maduro called it an “extra incentive” for the country’s athletes, who also learned they would not have to worry about the country’s rapidly depreciating currency, the bolívar. The athletes and their coaches will receive the cash in U.S. dollars, Maduro said, without specifying how much their rewards would be.

For Maduro, the Rio Games have provided a much needed national distraction from months of unrelenting bad news about the economy.

Venezuela faces a 10 percent economic contraction this year and is considered the world’s leader in inflation. Maduro’s gesture came on the same day economists announced that the cost of basic goods last month had increased 773 percent since July 2015.

Maduro ordered a 50 percent increase in the minimum wage last month, but the latest studies show that salaries still fall far short of the amount needed to obtain basic household goods and food. The government’s slow-footed economic interventions are being outpaced by Venezuela’s Olympic-level inflation.

Despite facing the oil-exporting country’s worst crisis in history, the Venezuelan president said he has also ordered a 50 percent increase in spending on high-performance athletics in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, a move that would benefit more than 1,000 Venezuelan Olympic hopefuls.

Venezuela’s most decorated Olympian, triple jumper Yulimar Rojas, received a car earlier this year from Maduro. She won silver in Rio, “thanks to the Bolivarian revolution, our commander Chávez and the athletic revolution,” Maduro said.

The “Bolivarian revolution” refers broadly to the socialist-inspired system implemented by Chávez from his inauguration as president in 1999 to his death in 2013.

One of the most visible members of the country’s Olympic team, fencing competitor and former sports minister Alejandra Benítez, 36, wore symbolic tributes to Chávez on her uniform and recorded pro-government videos from Rio. She appeared at Maduro’s side during Monday’s ceremony.

The Venezuelan team also won a bronze medal in boxing, and another bronze in BMX cycling. The country finished 65th in Olympic rankings, tied with Bulgaria.


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