Customers shop for government - subsidized food from a MERCAL grocery store in Guarico, Venezuela. Venezuela suffers from shortages of basic food goods, and private sector production is strained because of strict price controls enforced by the government. At this MERCAL, a bag of rice was sold for 3 bolivares. CREDIT: Meridith Kohut for Bloomberg

Caracas - Huge queues at supermarkets and shortages of basic products have become the norm in Venezuela over the past year – and the most needy are increasingly at the sharp edge.

Workers at soup kitchens for the homeless and hungry face an increasingly difficult task to find rice, lentils, flour and other staples to provide a free daily hot meal.

“I queue for hours every day because you can only get one thing one day, another the next,” said Fernanda Bolivar, who has worked for 11 years at the church-supported Mother Teresa soup kitchen in downtown Caracas.

“The situation’s got terrible in the last year,” she said in a dingy kitchen at the centre named for the Roman Catholic nun who helped the poor and dying in India.

Inspired to help because of her own experience of going hungry a decade ago, Bolivar cooks lunch every day for the 50 or so people who sit at long concrete tables inside the dimly lit refuge that often gets flooded during the rainy season.

To get the ingredients, like many other Venezuelan shoppers, she rises at 4am to start queueing – normally for several hours – at a supermarket nearby with hundreds of others.

A number marking her place in the queue is scrawled on her hand.

Opponents of President Nicolás Maduro’s government say the queues are a national embarrassment and a symbol of failed socialist economics similar to the old Soviet Union.

But officials say businessmen are deliberately hoarding products as part of an “economic war” against Maduro.

They point to popular social welfare programmes, and a halving of poverty levels since Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, came to power in 1999, as evidence that Venezuela’s poor are better cared for now than ever before.

The government this month began a system that tracks shoppers’ purchases at subsidised prices in state-run supermarkets.

Officials say that will thwart hoarders and guarantee equitable distribution of cheap food to those who need it, but critics decry it as a Cuban-style ration card that illustrates the shocking state of the economy.

Venezuela’s government runs a network of shelters and feeding centres known as the Negra Hipolita mission, which operate alongside church institutions such as the Mother Teresa centre in the San Martin district of Caracas.

There on a recent day, some of those eating a free lentil soup grumbled that there was no meat – but still gratefully wolfed down several bowls of food each.

“I’ve been coming every day for years, I’m one of the family here,” said unemployed Vladimir Garcia.

Garcia has been helping organiser Bolivar to queue for the centre’s food.

“Maybe socialism has done a lot for Venezuela, but we never had these huge long lines for everything before. Nor this scarcity of food products,” he said. “It’s madness for such a rich nation.” – Carlos Rawlins for Reuters