In hungry Venezuela, food producers step up exports to survive

MARACAIBO, Venezuela, (Reuters) – Shrimp farming is booming in this western Venezuelan city, but little of the shellfish is destined for tables in this malnourished nation.

About 90% of this shrimp is headed for Europe and Asia – with the blessing of President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela’s leader has lauded food exports on television as a way to raise hard currency to stabilize an economy in crisis. And he is paving the way for more foreign sales. His administration has loosened restrictions to allow more production to go abroad, 10 food industry entrepreneurs and executives told Reuters.

In addition to seafood, Venezuelan cheese, avocados, citrus, breakfast cereal and candy are finding international buyers.

These new foreign sales are tiny, with most companies billing less than $1 million per year. Venezuela remains almost entirely dependent on oil exports, which amounted to $29 billion last year.

Still, the numbers signal a shift for a government that has long blamed the private sector for shortages of basic goods. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, for years accused food companies of hoarding and profiteering. Business leaders say empty shelves were the result of state policies such as price and currency controls and the nationalization of farms and factories.

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