As electricity fails, desperate Venezuelans buy spoiled meat

MARACAIBO, Venezuela (AP) - In a city once called the Saudi Arabia of Venezuela for its vast oil wealth, residents of Maracaibo now line up to buy spoiled meat as refrigerators fail amid nine months of rolling power outages that recently got worse.

Some people fall ill eating the rotten beef, but at bargain prices, it's the only way they can afford protein as the country's crisis hits bottom.

"It smells a little foul, but you rinse it with a little vinegar and lemon," said Yeudis Luna, a father of three young boys buying darkened cuts at a butcher shop in Venezuela's second largest city.

Venezuelans are enduring the worst economic downfall in the oil-rich country's history. Basic services like running water and electricity have become luxuries.

Socialist President Nicolas Maduro blames the strife on an economic war waged by the United States and other capitalist powers. The governor of Maracaibo's Zulia state, Omar Prieto, recently said the rampant blackouts were being repaired, but relief has yet to come.

The sprawling port city of Maracaibo on the banks of a vast lake once served as a hub of Venezuela's oil production, producing roughly half of the nation's crude that was shipped around the world.

A bridge over Lake Maracaibo stands as a reminder of better times. The eight-kilometer (five-mile) long structure built five decades ago once glowed at night with thousands of lights, linking the city with the rest of Venezuela. Maracaibo was clean and bustling with international restaurants.

Today, the bridge's lights no longer shine and broken down oil platforms span the lake with downwind shores soaked in oil. The once-posh shopping centers have fallen into ruin and the international businesses have packed up and left.

For the last nine months Maracaibo's residents have endured rolling blackouts. Things turned dire Aug. 10 when a fire destroyed a main powerline supplying the city of 1.5 million people.

Refrigeration units fell idle and meat began turning. At least four butcher shops have been selling spoiled meat in Las Pulgas, Maracaibo's central market.

Butcher Johel Prieto said the outage turned an entire side of beef rotten. He ground up much of it and mixed it with a fresh, red meat in an attempt to mask the spoilage.

A pungent tray of the ground meat and other graying cuts on display one day at his counter collected flies - and a steady flow of customers. Some feed it to their dogs, said Prieto, yet others cook it for their families.

"Of course they eat the meat - thanks to Maduro," Prieto said. "The food of the poor is rotten food."

Across the way in another stall, a butcher - shirtless and smoking a cigarette - offers up trays of blackened cuts.

"People are buying it," said Jose Aguirre who was unloading spoiled chicken.

Luna, a 55-year-old parking lot watchman, took a kilogram of cuts home knowing they were bad, but doing what he could to make the meat edible.

His wife last year left for Colombia, abandoning him and their boys aged 6, 9 and 10. He said she couldn't stand the hunger anymore. He hasn't heard from her since.

Preparing the meat, Luna says he first rinsed it with water and then let it soak overnight in vinegar. He squeezed two lemons and let it simmer with a tomato and a half-onion.

Luna and his boys ate it.

"I was afraid that they would get sick because they are small," he said. "But only the little one got diarrhea and threw up."