By Luc Cohen and Keren Torres
TUREN, Venezuela, May 19 (Reuters) - Venezuelan farmer Agustin Zenere should have been planting corn by the second week of May - a crucial task in the economically devastated South American country where 7 million people are food insecure.
Instead, his 30-hectare (74-acre) plot of land in the breadbasket town of Turen was still covered with the brown, shriveled leaves of a sesame crop he could not harvest in time because the government had not given him enough diesel to run his tractors.
Diesel shortages have grown acute in the once-prosperous OPEC nation since late last year, when the United States ended an exemption to its crippling sanctions on state oil company PDVSA - aimed at ousting President Nicolas Maduro - that had allowed it to swap crude oil in exchange for imported diesel.
With farmers warning they may not have the fuel needed to plant staple corn and truckers sounding the alarm about difficulty transporting food, aid groups and some U.S. Democratic lawmakers have pressed President Joe Biden to end the ban on swaps.
Venezuela is mired in a humanitarian crisis after years of hyperinflation and recession, prompting millions to flee. Just 60% of the 36 kilograms (79.4 lbs) of food the Venezuelan diet requires on average per month was available in the country as of February, according to Edison Arciniega, executive director of non-governmental organization Citizenry in Action.
An opposition-conducted survey late last year found that 82.3% of Caracas residents said their income was insufficient to buy food for their family, and more than 5.4 million Venezuelans are now living abroad, according to the United Nations.
Critics, and many farmers, say sanctions are not the root cause of the shortages. PDVSA's 1.3 million barrel-per-day (bpd) refining network is operating at a fraction of its capacity, leaving Venezuela - home to the world's largest crude reserves by some measures - dependent on imported fuel.
Shortly after Venezuela received its last diesel cargo in November, the agriculture ministry began to ration the fuel - which is given away for free - to farmers. Soldiers now stand guard at service stations with lists of which farmers are able to fill up to 400 liters (106 gallons)- enough to run a tractor for a few days - into canisters on a given day.
"We cannot do anything if they give us one drop at a time," said Zenere, 49, who invested $10,000 in the lost sesame crop.
Fields across Turen - in the center-west plains state of Portuguesa - are overrun with weeds that farmers need diesel-powered tractors to remove.
In the lush mountains of Cubiro in the western state of Lara, many producers have stopped planting tomatoes, peppers and onions because fuel shortages make it hard to transport crops to market, said Luis Colmenares, one of the few remaining truck drivers operating in the area. Some farmers gave away uncollected broccoli and lettuce crops to neighbors.
And at Marcos Mendoza's Invernadero Tintorero greenhouses in Lara, pepper roots rot because customers do not have fuel to travel and pick them up.
Two farmers in the Turen area with relatively large plots told Reuters that they were able to obtain sufficient fuel by sending several family members to wait at different service stations.
So far, U.S. officials have said they are in no rush to lift sanctions and want to see Maduro take concrete steps toward holding free and fair elections.
Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council at the White House, has suggested Venezuela is holding back diesel on purpose to manipulate public opinion against the sanctions.
"They try to paint it as a humanitarian situation, but they keep the diesel for the military and give it to Cuba, and leave the people to suffer to help their international argument," Gonzalez told television channel EVTV Miami in March.
The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment. The Treasury Department, which enforces sanctions, declined to comment.
Venezuela's information, agriculture and oil ministries did not respond to requests for comment.
TWO MONTHS WAITING
The fuel shortages are the latest headache for Venezuelan farmers, who for more than a decade have struggled to import fertilizers and obtain credit due to hyperinflation and the fallout of widespread expropriations by Maduro's predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez.
Maduro recognized the shortages and last month called on his government to improve fuel supply to farmers within 60 days. Farmers say they have not noticed any improvement, and that the existing rationing system is plagued by a lack of transparency leaving them unsure when or where they are supposed to fill up.
"You have to guess, you have to make a pilgrimage from service station to service station asking," said Roberto Latini, 58, who last month lost 50 hectares of beans that he planted later than he wanted to because of a lack of diesel.
The shortages have raised concern among Venezuela's opposition, whose leader Juan Guaido was recognized in 2019 by Washington and dozens of other countries as Venezuela's rightful leader on the grounds that Maduro rigged his 2018 re-election.
The opposition has largely defended U.S. sanctions as necessary to prevent Maduro's government from robbing state resources and to pressure him to the negotiating table.
Guaido's representatives have proposed that the United States design a mechanism to allow diesel imports while ensuring Maduro does not use the fuel for corrupt ends, two people familiar with the matter said.
Any solution may come too late for Estanislao Wawrzyniak, 73, who received diesel last week for the first time in two months for his 60-hectare plot in Turen full of knee-high weeds.
"Two months waiting, without being able to do anything," Wawrzyniak said, as two of his grandchildren used a tube to load diesel into a rusting tank held up on stilts, from a canister in the bed of a red pickup truck blaring electronic music.
Wawrzyniak plans to use the fuel to kill the weeds, and then he must wait several days before planting corn. Asked whether he would have time to plant before the rains picked up, he replied, "Only God knows." (Reporting by Luc Cohen and Keren Torres Additional reporting by Efrain Otero and Matt Spetalnick Editing by Marguerita Choy)
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