Did you hear the one about the guy who lost weight due to nationwide food shortages but felt so invigorated from shedding the extra pounds that he was able to have great sex?
That's the gist of an unfortunate joke made by Venezuela's president last weekend—and almost nobody is laughing.
The incident occurred Sunday during a nationally televised speech when a smug President Nicolas Maduro asked one of his supporters in the audience why he looked so thin.
The baffled supporter made some gestures with his arms, suggesting that he had been jogging a lot. But then someone in the audience said what everyone was thinking. She shouted that the man was on the “Maduro Diet,” a term that Venezuelans now use for forced weight loss due to the country's food shortages.
Maduro responded immediately with an attempt at a witty comeback.
“The Maduro diet, that's the one that makes you tough,” the Venezuelan president joked. “You won't even need Viagra now,” he added, to the applause of government workers and party loyalists.
But Maduro's funnyman routine didn't sit well with many Venezuelans who are forced to brave long daily lines under the sun to purchase subsidized goods from poorly stocked supermarkets. A recent survey suggests that 60% of the population is skipping at least one meal per day, as the world's highest inflation rate cuts into household incomes and the cash-strapped government struggles to keep up with food imports.
On Twitter critics said Maduro's comment was more cynical than funny, and shows his inability to contain the country´s economic meltdown.
“It's worrying that the country has become accustomed to the Maduro diet,” wrote Venezuelan economist Veronica Sanchez. “But for the president to make a joke of that is immoral.”
“Chavismo makes you go hungry, and then they laugh about it,” said Twitter user Luis Chicott.
Venezuelan newspaper El Estimulo responded to Maduro's joke by listing half a dozen cases of children who have died in the country recently because their parents haven't been able to purchase food. The paper linked to a Venebarometro survey from July, which estimates that 44% of Venezuelans were down to just two meals a day, and 17% are eating just one meal a day.
The Venezuelan government says the food shortages —and the “Maduro diet”— are the result of product hoarding by capitalist companies who are bent on “destabilizing” the socialist regime.
But academics and business leaders say the food shortages are a result of the Venezuelan government's excessive intervention in the economy.
Since the days of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan government has imposed price controls on basic goods and nationalized dozens of companies that were deemed to be of “strategic interest” to the country.
Critics say the price controls have made it unprofitable to produce goods in Venezuela, which has taken a toll on local food supplies. The lack of protection for private property has also discouraged manufacturers from investing in the country, increasing Venezuela's reliance on imports paid for with oil income, which has plummeted over the past two years, as global crude prices drop.
“The Maduro diet was the imposition of barriers,” wrote political analyst Luis Carlos Diaz. “Controls on prices, imports, production, distribution…”
“Nicolas Maduro thinks it's hilarious that people are going hungry due to his incompetence,” quipped Venezuelan blogger and government critic Francisco Toro.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.