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27 Jun 2019 21:15
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  •   Home > News > International

    Venezuelans are slowly starving to death as Maduro and Guaido battle for power

    As Venezuela's economy spirals, children are starving, preventable diseases are returning, and money is practically worthless. This is the inside story of a hidden humanitarian crisis.


    Seven-year-old Samil is eating a mango. It may be one of his only meals today.

    His face is embedded in the piece of deep orange fruit as he tears at it with his teeth.

    Juice runs down his chin and bare torso, ribs poking out through his dark skin.

    Like 90 per cent of Venezuelans, Samil's family is perilously short of food.

    Most meals consist of rice and boiled vegetables like plantains, and here by the sea a couple of hours from the capital Caracas, a few sardines if they're lucky.

    Protein in the form of meat is increasingly sporadic.

    Like many, Samil's family rely on fallen mangoes, bananas and other tropical fruit to get through the day.

    But the children are showing signs of malnutrition — bony bodies, distended bellies and patches of discoloured skin are the obvious giveaways.

    "I don't know how to tell my kids we don't have food," says Samil's mother Maria Hernandez, who has two other children to feed as well.

    "They say, 'Mum I'm hungry, I want to eat.' I tell my husband to go out and get something for our children but sometimes he leaves and returns with nothing," she said.

    The family is heavily reliant on food parcels from the government, but as Venezuela has collapsed, so have the government-provided food handouts in many places, especially outside Caracas.

    The bags used to come every two weeks. Now they arrive every two to three months.

    "Those bags of food sometimes will be incomplete," Maria says. "It should have milk and other things. Sometimes it's just rice and flour — no beans, no nothing."

    It's just another sign of a country slipping into ruin.

    Venezuelan currency is nearly worthless

    Vast oil reserves, the largest in the world, supported equally vast government largesse for years.

    Charismatic, populist President Hugo Chavez was adored by the poor for his socialist policies: community support programs, free health care and education and generally subsidised living.

    But with it came deep corruption and nepotism, as well as the nationalism of assets, artificial subsidies and price controls.

    Skilled managers of public utilities and the oil business were replaced with cronies, mismanagement set in, maintenance was not done, and when the oil price crashed in 2014, Venezuela's currency came crashing down with it.

    When Mr Chavez died and was replaced by his anointed successor Nicolas Maduro, he inherited a basket case and failed to manage the crisis.

    Suddenly a formerly wealthy country was in freefall.

    Hence, the situation that ordinary Venezuelans find themselves in: poor, hungry, desperate, and at high risk of being punished by the government for saying so.

    The situation is so extreme that one interview-based study suggested Venezuelans lost an average of 11 kilograms in body weight in 2017 alone.

    The phenomenon has been dubbed 'the Maduro diet' by the president's opponents who blame him for Venezuela's plight. Others say the figure is unreliable because it relies on interviews rather than a controlled weigh-in program.

    Just up the road from Samil and his mango, single mother Wisuris Mata Reyes has several mouths to feed.

    Her children — aged seven, five and one — are tiny for their age.

    Some days they're lucky to get one meal because the cost of food is so high.

    The International Monetary Fund has predicted that hyperinflation in Venezuela may hit 10,000,000 per cent this year.

    The Maduro government has recently tightened currency controls which may prevent that mark from being hit, but either way, the local currency is already worth virtually nothing, making even the basics unaffordable.

    "If I had to go and beg in the streets for food I'd do it," Wisuris says.

    As we talk, she makes a handbag on the table in front of us, calmly grabbing banknotes from a basket nearby, folding them neatly and weaving them together.

    They're so valueless that she also has them hanging from the walls in the shape of folded fans as decorations.

    She sells them to make a meagre income — a stark symbol of the crisis that's gripping what was once the wealthiest country in Latin America.

    'We spend every day looking for ways to solve our problems'

    When I ask Anadelkis Navarro what it's like to be a mother who can't feed her family there's a long pause.

    Tears stream down her face as she tries desperately to compose herself.

    "It's difficult?" I say softly.

    "Si," she replies.

    We're sitting in the family's tiny kitchen in a Caracas slum. Her husband and their three young children watch silently as we speak about the difficulties of daily life.

    "Right now a wage is 40 thousand Bolivars a month," she explains. That's less than $10 AUD.

    "And that's enough just to get one kilogram of meat plus maybe some rice or some spaghetti, but it won't last either a week or a month."

    "Sometimes I feel like I'm collapsing together with my husband," she says of the effort to find enough food.

    "It's the situation, the system. The fact that you have to depend on a bag that may or may not arrive every month. And how about the rest of the month? We spend every day looking for ways to solve our problems."

    The bags, when they do come, contain things like spaghetti, sugar, rice, beans, oil and corn flour.

    They're handed out by government-backed communal councils.

    An attempt to oust Maduro has failed

    Maybelin Inojosa is responsible for distributing bags in one of the slums we visit.

    She blames US sanctions rather than the Venezuelan government for the crisis.

    "Unfortunately almost right after [President Hugo] Chavez died, we suffered a blockade. They have blocked every entrance to our country. If you go to the supermarkets you won't find products on the shelves," she says.

    She rejects the US-backed Juan Guaido as a replacement leader.

    "Can someone who has never won an election with votes from the people be a good president?," she asks.

    "A president like that wouldn't be accepted in the US, a self-proclaimed president would not be accepted in other countries, so why do we have to accept him here?"

    The situation has been worsening for years, but it came to a head in January when the head of the opposition-held National Assembly, Mr Guiado, declared himself president.

    The opposition says sham elections last year allow the move under the constitution and that an interim government must be appointed and new elections held.

    However, an attempted uprising to force incumbent President Nicholas Maduro to exit failed on April 30th.

    With the momentum lost, people like Ana Navarro and her family remain frustrated and in limbo.

    "This situation has happened because of decay in the system, everything, the whole chain has an influence on what is happening," she says.

    "Nothing seems to improve. It all gets worse and we see no improvement at all. So, yes, there should be a change to give the opportunity to someone else to rule to improve things."

    Venezuela's health system is in shambles

    The country's health system — once the envy of Latin America — is emblematic of the country's demise.

    As well as lacking food, Nilda Perdomo says she has to leave the house very early to find painkillers for her child.

    Her 16-year-old daughter, Maria, has an insidious disorder that's morphed into cancer.

    It causes tumours to form everywhere from her nerves to her eyes, leaving her to feel "like someone is throwing rocks or hammers at me," she says.

    Relief comes only when her mother can find the right medicine.

    "You have to rise early, look for help with your friends to see where you can get it," Nilda says.

    "Because maybe you can find what you need, but if don't have the money to pay for it, you just won't get it. It's as simple as that. And if you wait the next day, it'll be more expensive."

    Nilda says it's impossible to estimate the full cost of the medicine, but she thinks a single dose of the cheapest stuff is already beyond her.

    Nilda used to make extra money baking cakes to sell, but says now the ingredients are far too expensive and there's no one buying cakes anyway.

    Staying home means she can more easily make the long trek — either on foot or in the back of a friend's car — to the hospital for her daughter's appointments.

    "People fight to get on a bus or in the subway," Maria explains.

    "I have even heard about some people who can't stand the situation anymore and they commit suicide," she says.

    Other times, power outages cut all transportation options and residents walk through the dark tunnels.

    But economic hardship has made Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

    Violent crime is rife and even leaving the house at the wrong time can be dangerous.

    "If you wait out here for a bus, they'll mug you. If you wait further up, they'll mug you too," Maria says.

    Sometimes Maria's mum can't leave as early in the morning as she'd like, meaning she doesn't always return with painkillers.

    "I say, well, today I won't take any pills," Maria says. "I have to endure pain and when I have the medicine, I resist as much as possible. I only take it when I can't hold on anymore."

    Maria shows me her pet turtle after our interview.

    She has named it 'Hope'.

    Treatable conditions claim fatalities

    The food shortage and blackout-induced refrigeration disruptions are leading to a rise in bacterial infections in children, says a doctor at one of the largest hospitals in Caracas.

    We can't reveal his name, or even where he works exactly, because of likely reprisals from government-backed thugs who guard health facilities.

    We have to sneak in to the hospital to see him.

    Some doctors are speaking up as previously eradicated diseases like measles, diphtheria, tuberculosis and polio re-emerge, and treatable infections become impossible to resolve due to lack of supplies.

    Reliable data is difficult to find, in part due to deliberate government censorship, as well as general dysfunction.

    But reports suggest that more than 22,000 doctors left Venezuela from 2012 to 2017.

    This hospital, where the hallways are dark due to lack of electricity, is now operating at 20% of its capacity.

    "We used to work with roughly 1,200 beds. We're now working with no more than 250 beds," the doctor says.

    "But that's all I think we can take. That amount of beds needs a certain amount of auxiliary nurses, people who clean, doctors, residents… and we don't have that, we don't have them."

    He says patients who used to wait a few weeks for a surgery or treatment now have to wait up to five months.

    "Basically, we don't have all the supplies we need to operate on a patient. All patients have to bring their supplies, medicine, material and surgical things," he says.

    The doctor takes us to see one of the patients.

    "I came here because I needed the help so hearing that was not easy," says a woman with leukaemia who we also won't name for her own safety.

    She arrived at hospital with mouth blisters and a high platelet count.

    Speaking as she lies weakly in a hospital bed covered with greying linens, she says the health situation in Venezuela is "difficult, appalling and very bad."

    The lack of medicine means her family is under extreme pressure to find and purchase medication for her to treat the disease.

    Still, she doesn't let her 9-year-old son visit her at the hospital.

    "I don't want him to see me like this," she says.

    The doctor says the government, still concerned about its reputation, tries to make sure that hospitals have enough supplies to treat the obvious emergency cases.

    Patients with gunshot wounds or car crash victims usually get immediate care.

    Most patients with chronic or terminal conditions are able to recruit friends or family to get them the supplies they need.

    But that's not always the case if they take a sudden turn for the worse.

    "If it's something acute, bleeding complications or something more severe, well, we only have to watch them deteriorate in front of us," he says.

    Inevitably, he says Venezuelans are dying when they shouldn't be.

    "[I feel] sadness, angry… the people who work here, we lived in another [Venezuela], so we know that other country existed," the doctor says.

    "We lived in it and we worked in it, so it's very sad to see how we can't do even 20% of the things we used to do."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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