CARACAS (Reuters) - A single mom tells Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, on live television that she cannot afford to adequately feed her four kids, and he quickly changes the subject to joke about her foreign-sounding name, Joandry Smith.
A girl complains that hungry classmates are fainting at school, and Maduro chides her for not doing more for them. A boy says he missed a big soccer game because he was hospitalized, and Maduro recommends he find it on YouTube.
The unpopular leftist president’s hours-long televised visits to clinics or schools are meant to soften his image, but foes say they instead highlight his disconnect from a national economic crisis in which millions of people are missing meals.
“As much as they try and hide reality, it always gets out and hits them ‘live on TV,'” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said in a recent speech to a local community.
“The only one gaining weight in Venezuela is Maduro. He hardly fits in the TV screen any more,” he said, lampooning the former bus driver and union leader’s full figure.
Steeped in the fourth year of a recession, around 93 percent of Venezuelans cannot afford to buy sufficient food and 73 percent of them have lost weight in the last year, according to a recent study by three universities.
“They want to stay in power, so they say that nothing is wrong,” said domestic worker Ludy Berrio, 48, as she sat one recent afternoon on a Caracas sidewalk for two hours among hundreds of shoppers in a line, hoping to buy two bags of pasta and rice.
“We’re hungrier by the day,” said the mother of two who lost about 23 kilos (50.7 lb) in the last year because she survives on rice, plantains and corn patties.
For several years now, Venezuelans have been enduring massive lines for scarce products, particularly food basics subsidized by the government. Security forces often guard and guide the lines, though fights and arguments are still common, and sometimes people faint under the sun.
Click on reut.rs/2mVnEy9 to see photos on the lines.
Many have taken offence with Maduro’s brusque treatment of people who mention hunger on his carefully choreographed TV appearances. A recent comment he made about enjoying chicken cooked in wine was not well received by the general public.
The reference to YouTube went down badly given Venezuela’s poor internet connectivity and high-priced computers and phones that many cannot afford.
Many have wryly dubbed their weight loss the “Maduro diet.”
Maduro himself joked about that during an event to promote the distribution of food by Socialist Party committees. “The Maduro diet makes you hard ... without need for Viagra!” he said.
Lacking the charisma of his late mentor Hugo Chavez and faced with an economic crisis, Maduro’s popularity has sunk since his 2013 election to just around 20 percent.
The “Chavismo” movement still has support from a hard core and traditionally poor base, which largely sees opposition politicians as greedy elitists who would eliminate state-provided welfare benefits.
“Compared with those who came before him, he’s a good president,” said homemaker Nancy Moreno, 57, who praised her state-provided apartment, while also complaining that her pension does not allow her to buy enough food.
Reporting and writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Richard Chang