Outdoor World

Hunger eats away at Venezuelas soul as its people struggle to survive

The Maduro regime denies its once oil-rich country is in crisis. But on the streets the desperation cannot be hidden

Hunger is chewing at Venezuela, where both governments that claims to rule for the poorest has left most of its 31 million people short of food, many desperately so. As nighttime falls over Caracas, and most of the city’s occupants lock their doorways against its ever more violent streets, Adriana Velasquez gets ready for operate, heading out into an uncertain darkness as she has done since hunger forced her into the only job she could find at 14.

She was introduced to her brothel madam by a pal more than two years ago after her mom, a single parent, was fired and the two run out of meat.” It was really hard, but we were going to bed without eating ,” said the adolescent, whose epithet has been changed to protect her.

Since then Venezuela’s crisis has deepened, the number of women working at the brothel has doubled, and their ages have plummeted.” I was the youngest when I started. Now there are girls who are 12 or 13. Almost all of us are there because of the crisis, because of hunger .”

She earns 400,000 bolivares a month, around four times the minimum wage, but at a time of hyperinflation that is now merit about $30, barely enough to feed herself, her mother and a new child brother. She has signed up to evening class that operate before her nightly shifting, and be available to the working day escape from a job where” everything is ugly “.

Velasquez grew up in one of Caracas’s poorest and most violent districts, but Venezuela’s food crisis respects neither class nor geography. The pangs of hunger are seemed through the corridors of its major firms, behind the microphone on radio reveals, in hospitals where malnutrition is clambering sharply and already claiming lives, and at schools where children swoon and teachers skip grades to queue for food.

Nearly three-quarters of Venezuelans just lost weight over the past year, and the average loss was a huge 9kg, or almost a stone and a half, according to a poll by the country’s top universities. For many that is simply because meat is too expensive. Nine out of 10 homes can’t cover the cost of what they should eat.

And 10 million people hop-skip at the least one meal a day, often to help feed their children.

David Gonzalez , not his real epithet, had a college degree, a job and modest middle-class dreams of owning a car and a mansion before Venezuela slipped towards its current crisis, and spiralling inflation made the food he needed to stay alive unaffordable. In a coffeehouse in downtown Caracas, he explains how his daydreams shrank with his wasting body , now so emaciated that rib and collarbones poke through a once-chubby chest.

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” It’s sad because you stop thinking of what your professional aims and challenges are and instead merely focus on what you can eat ,” said here 29 -year-old activist and journalist. Like many of Venezuela’s hungry middle classes he was ashamed of his situation.

” I had find people suffering, I realized people queueing for bread, but it has not been able to reached me, I didn’t expect it would ,” he said.” Never in “peoples lives” had I expended a night worrying about what I would eat tomorrow .”

This year he has done little else. He stands 5ft 7in tall, and “ve lost” more than a quarter of his torso mass, shrinking to little over 50 kg( 7st 12 lb) since the start of the year. During a checkup for a new job, doctors diagnosed a heart murmur can be attributed to stress and hunger. He gets up at 5am to queue for meat, but sometimes it isn’t there.

” Its like an obstacle course. You have to find money to buy food, a place to buy it and then get there in time ,” he said, with a wry grin that has lived better than his health, before adding:” One of the good things about Venezuelans is they laugh about it all- meat, and security and health .”

This summer he swallowed his pride and signed up for a monthly container of subsidised food sold by the government for about $1.” I didn’t want to be part of that scheme. But I had to change my decision, to literally not die of hunger .”

President Nicolas Maduro says Venezuela’s difficulties are the result of” economic war” waged by the US. He points to Donald Trump’s public mulling of a” military option” earlier this month as evidence Washington is pushing for regime change, and on Friday slammed ramped-up US sanctions against the government and the state-owned oil firm as an overt bid to undermine the government by forcing it to default on debt.

Former foreign minister and top aide Delcy Rodriguez has denied the two countries has a meat crisis, denouncing the” blackmail of hunger “. She told the new legislative super-body she heads:” In Venezuela there is no hunger, there is firmnes. There is indignation and gallantry to protect Venezuela .”

But critics and economists say the crisis is both real and self-inflicted, the outcomes of a government employing a raft of imports as a shortcut to meet promises of developing and food security during the course of its heady years of an oil price boom. Venezuela used to produce more than two-thirds of its meat, and import the remainder, but those proportions are now overruled, with imports attaining up around 70% of what the country eats.

When crude prices began slipping in 2014, bringing down oil earnings, it left the country short of dollars, and the governmental forces decided to focus its income on servicing the national debt rather than importing food.

The Katiuska family face a daily battle. Photograph: Emma Graham-Harrison for the Observer

” The authorities concerned chose people have to eat less for them to balance their reports ,” said Efrain Velasquez, president of the semi-official National Economic Council.” That implies poverty, social worsening, that people are worse off .”

Supplies dried up and inflation sliced through savings and earnings, slashing the value of the currency by more than 99% since Maduro’s 2013 election. Bolivares bought with $1,000 then would be worth little over a dollar at today’s black market rate.

There has been no official inflation data regarding the government since 2015, but the opposition puts the above figures at 250% in the first seven months of the year. In a tacit recognition of the scale of the problem, the president himself boosted the minimum wage virtually 500% last year, to “offset inflation”.

” We are the only country in the world where people dread a wage hike, because they know the price of meat are as follows[ up ],” said Ingrid Soto de Sanabria, head of nutrition at Venezuela’s top children’s hospital, “whos been” creating the alarm about the steep rise in cases of malnutrition.

The number of children with severe malnutrition who were admitted to the hospital rose from 30 in 2015 to 110 last year, and appears set to clamber further this year based on figures from the first half of the year, she said. There has been a subtle switch in the nature of the problems parents face. Formula for newborns who can’t be breastfed was hard to track down anywhere last year, with shortfalls so severe they claimed the well-being of newborns.

Since the government unofficially relaxed price controls there are more supplies, but mothers struggle to pay for what they need, she said.” Last time there used to be horrible shortfalls, this year there are less deficits, but the prices are through the roof.

” We don’t have formula, and what little we do is thanks to gifts ,” she said. Mothers who are malnourished can struggle to breastfeed, worsening the problem.

Catholic charity Caritas has been among those raising the alarm, after launching a project to monitor and tackle child nutrition across four Venzeulan states.” Humanitarian help is needed to save lives. I wouldn’t have said that a year ago, because people weren’t succumbing ,” said Susana Raffalli, who led the project. After decades tackling food crisis around the world, from Pakistan to Algeria, she was horrified to find herself doing the same in her native Venezuela.

People check bags of foodstuff inside one of the food distribution centres, which have been set up by local committees’ for supply and production’ in Caracas. Photograph: Ronaldo Schemidt/ AFP/ Getty Images

” Its not a country with a tradition of humanitarian crises like others in the region ,” she said. But malnutrition has been rising sharply, with more than half of all children affected in some way. The percentage of children showing signs of acute malnourishment climbed from 8% last October to 12% in July. That is well over the 10% threshold for a severe food crisis, and she fears it is still rising. If acute malnourishment reaches 15%, international agencies consider a country or area to be in a state of meat emergency.

” They are getting younger, and the cases more serious ,” said Raffalli, who is particularly disturbed about the long-term implications, for individuals and for the two countries. Malnutrition in a very young children can stunt development for life.

” If children are severely malnourished under 2 years old, it has an irreversible influence. The first 1,000 days are the most important in the life of a newborn, and specifies up the cognitive situation that will affect them for their whole life .”

She is waiting for funding to take the survey results, and food supporting, to a wider range of states. It fills a gap in data left by a government that has not published statistics on nutrition for several years, and a gap in supporting left by failed public support programmes.

But she warns that no feeding programme can do anything more than protect individual children.” We need this assistance because people are being harmed, they are dying. But it’s a temporary solution, it won’t resolve the problem of furnish and access to meat .”

Many mothers are already fearful. Luisa Garcia , not her real epithet, wept when she heard her malnourished son had been nursed back to health by the Caritas feeding project, but not tears of joy. She was still unemployed, with empty closets and a bare fridge, and yet the meat handouts he had been living on would end.

” On the day they said he was up to weight, I went away exclaiming, because I had nothing to be given to eat. I counted on that food ,” the 38 -year-old recalled as she awaited in line at a church soup kitchen, likewise organised by Caritas.” We eat like crabs, picking a little where we can. Often only once a day, at best twice .”

The volunteers who make and serve the soup understand the desperation; they too have become familiar with the gnawing ache of an empty stomach.” We are all professionals and we invest almost everything we earn on food and basic needs ,” said Rosalinda Rodriguez, a retired teach who hasn’t bought new clothes since 2014, and has lost 12 kg over the past year.

Although she is still in her own terms “stout”, she was recently diagnosed with anaemia because she is eating such poor quality meat. Another volunteer has shrunk even more.” Life has been totally derailed ,” said Ricardo Lopez, a lawyer whose son went to an international school until the emergencies shrunk his salary- paid in bolivares- to far below the foreign currency tuition fees.

Empty shelves in Caracas. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/ Reuters

” I try to leave lunch as late as is practicable myself, so you can just have a snack in the evening. My colleagues sometimes faint from starvation, or don’t have lunch .”

As with other former members of the middle class, the crisis has brought not just starvation but a hollowing out of their own lives. Cinemas, meals out, gym membership, even hiking in hills around the city have been cut off by the need to stave off thirst. Lopez, who asked for his real name to be withheld, has so little fund left these days after paying for meat and other essentials that he could only budget 15,000 bolivares, or a single US dollar, to enjoy the summer vacation with his son.

Instead of beach journeys, “hes spent” August weekends feeding those who are even worse off.” We reckoned no one used to come but then we were full. Hunger doesn’t take holidays .”

The crisis has left the promises, and legacy, of former chairperson Hugo Chavez, in tatters. He rose to power and stayed there until his death from cancer in 2013, in big proportion promising a more equitable distribution of the country’s oil wealth and food security for all. The advantages were real for many Venezuelans, and even if they have not demonstrated sustainable they nurtured a fierce allegiance that carried Maduro to power and a base that is staying with him through hardship.

Even today his supporters include those who have lost serious amounts of weight, pine for their favourite food, and have been separated from beloved relatives by the vast exodus of Venezuelans seeking a better possibility of going to bed on a full stomach.

” If we supported Chavez with petroleum at $100 a cask, we have to support him now with it down at $40 a cask ,” said Henny Liendo, a chocolate cooperative member in the village of Chuao. Diets have changed back to patterns more familiar to parents and grandparents, to fish, root veggies and bananas, with less sugar, flour and meat.

He sees his curtailed diet and occasional thirst as sacrifices in a bigger conflict, but mourns for the past.” We were happy and we didn’t know it ,” Venezuelans say in towns and villages, looking back over recent turbulent decades. The government’s most recent effort to hang on to Chavez’s legacies has been the boxes of subsidised food, known colloquially by their Spanish initials CLAP, “thats been” launched last year. They bundle imported food together for a low price. They never last a whole month, often little more than a few weeks for large-scale families, but they bring inexpensive meat and much needed variety, staples-turned-luxuries like mayonnaise, butter and milk powder into homes.

When Gonzalez, the activist, got his first government container after months of awaiting, he sat down to a dinner of arepas , “the member states national” corn-flour patties, with butter and cheese and a beaker of milky coffee. Once an everyday banquet, it seemed, he said, like a luxurious indulgence.

For the very poorest in this disintegrating economy, though, even a dollar to pay for them can be out of reach.” We eat yuca, bananas, green papaya ,” said Katiuska Perez , not her real epithet, a 28 -year-old mother of six, who lives in the village of Tocoron.” When the boxes come I’m allowed two, but sometimes I can only afford one, or none at all .”

Her five daughters all registered as severely malnourished when Caritas did checks, even though like many mothers she had been cutting back her own snacks to boost their portions.

” I feed them first, so they have enough to eat, and we go without ,” she said. Most recovered with feeding assistance, but on the most recent visit her one-year-old had slipped back to six kilograms, a weight more appropriate for a child half her age. Perez said she feelings hopeless.” We have been bolt for several years now. Everything that Chavez built with his hands has been kicked down .”

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ world/ 2017/ aug/ 26/ nicolas-maduro-donald-trump-venezuela-hunger

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