Venezuela's new decree: Forced farm work for citizens

Venezuelans cross into Colombia to get food
Venezuelans cross into Colombia to get food

A new decree by Venezuela's government could make its citizens work on farms to tackle the country's severe food shortages.

That "effectively amounts to forced labor," according to Amnesty International, which derided the decree as "unlawful."

In a vaguely-worded decree, Venezuelan officials indicated that public and private sector employees could be forced to work in the country's fields for at least 60-day periods, which may be extended "if circumstances merit."

"Trying to tackle Venezuela's severe food shortages by forcing people to work the fields is like trying to fix a broken leg with a band aid," Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas' Director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

President Nicolas Maduro is using his executive powers to declare a state of economic emergency. By using a decree, he can legally circumvent Venezuela's opposition-led National Assembly -- the Congress -- which is staunchly against all of Maduro's actions.

According to the decree from July 22, workers would still be paid their normal salary by the government and they can't be fired from their actual job.

Related: Hungry Venezuelans cry at sight of food in Colombia

It is a potent sign of tough conditions in Venezuela, which is grappling with the lack of basic food items like milk, eggs and bread. People wait hours in lines outsides supermarkets to buy groceries and often only see empty shelves.

Venezuela once had a robust agricultural sector. But under its socialist regime, which began with Hugo Chavez in 1999, the oil-rich country started importing more food and invested less in agriculture. Nearly all of Venezuela's revenue from exports comes from oil.

With oil prices down to about $41 a barrel from over $100 about two years ago, Venezuela has quickly run out of cash and can't pay for its imports of food, toilet paper and other necessities. Neglected farms are now being asked to pick up the slack.

Maduro's actions are very similar to a strategy the communist Cuban government used in the 1960s when it sought to recover sugar production after it declined sharply following the U.S. embargo on Cuban goods. It forced Cubans to work on sugar farms to cultivate the island's key commodity.

Related: McDonalds forced to halt sales of Big Mac in Venezuela

It's important to note that Maduro has issued decrees before and they often just languish. In January, his government published a decree that put in place mechanisms to restrict the access and movements to the money in the accounts. In other words, a kind of bank freeze. However, that hasn't happened yet.

The National Assembly is expected to discuss the decree on Tuesday. But it would largely be symbolic: under Venezuelan law, the Assembly can't strike down a decree.

This latest action by Maduro may also be a sign that at least one other leader may be calling the shots on this issue. Earlier in July, Maduro appointed one of the country's defense ministers, Vladimir Padrino, as the leader of a team that would control the country's food supply and distribution.

Related: Venezuela's health care crisis

It's powerful role, especially at a time of such scarcity in Venezuela.

"The power handed to Padrino in this program is extraordinary, in our view, and may signal that President Maduro is trying to increase support from the military amid a deepening social and economic crisis," Sebastian Rondeau, an economist at Bank of America, wrote in a research note.

Venezuela is the world's worst economy, according to the IMF. It's expected to shrink 10% this year and inflation is projected to rise over 700%. Beyond food shortages, hospitals are low on supplies, causing many patients to go untreated and some to die.

The country's electoral authorities are still reviewing the petition, which Maduro strongly opposes.

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