Hunger: Venezuela’s People Struggle to Survive – Emma Graham-Harrison – Caracas | The Guardian UK

Hunger Eats Away at Venezuela’s 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

Emma Graham-Harrison – Caracas | The Guardian UK

Hunger is gnawing at Venezuela, where a government that claims to rule for the poorest has left most of its 31 million people short of food, many desperately so.

As night falls over Caracas, and most of the city’s residents lock their doors against its ever more violent streets, Adriana Velásquez gets ready for work, 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 friend more than two years ago after her mother, a single parent, was fired and the two ran out of food. “It was really hard, but we were going to bed without eating,” said the teenager, whose name 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 dropped. “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 bolívares a month, around four times the minimum wage, but at a time of hyperinflation that is now worth about $30, barely enough to feed herself, her mother and a new baby brother. She has signed up to evening classes that run before her nightly shift, and hopes to one day escape from a job where “everything is ugly”.

Velásquez 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 felt through the corridors of its major businesses, behind the microphone on radio shows, in hospitals where malnutrition is climbing sharply and already claiming lives, and at schools where children faint and teachers skip classes to queue for food.

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

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

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

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

“I had seen people suffering, I saw people queueing for bread, but it had not reached me, I didn’t expect it would,” he said. “Never in my life had I spent a night worrying about what I would eat tomorrow.”

This year he has done little else. He stands 5ft 7in tall, and has lost more than a quarter of his body mass, shrinking to little over 50kg (7st 12lb) since the start of the year. During a checkup for a new job, doctors diagnosed a heart murmur caused by stress and hunger. He gets up at 5am to queue for food, 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 survived better than his health, before adding: “One of the good things about Venezuelans is they laugh about it all – food, and security and health.”

This summer he swallowed his pride and signed up for a monthly box 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 Nicolás Maduro says Venezuela’s problems are the result of “economic warfare” waged by the USA. 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 USA sanctions against the government and the state-owned oil corporation as an overt bid to undermine the government by forcing it to default on debt.

Former foreign minister and top aide Delcy Rodríguez has denied the country has a food crisis, denouncing the “blackmail of hunger”. She told the new legislative super-body she heads: “In Venezuela there is no hunger, there is willpower. There is indignation and courage to defend Venezuela.”

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

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

“This administration decided people have to eat less for them to balance their accounts,” said Efraín Velásquez, president of the semi-official National Economic Council. “That implies poverty, social deterioration, 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. Bolívares 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 from the government since 2015, but the opposition puts the figure 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 nearly 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 food will follow [up],” said Ingrid Soto de Sanabria, head of nutrition at Venezuela’s top children’s hospital, who has been raising 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 looks set to climb further this year based on figures from the first half of the year, she said. There has been a subtle shifting in the nature of the problems parents face. Formula for babies who can’t be breastfed was hard to track down anywhere last year, with shortages so severe they claimed the lives of newborns.

Since the government unofficially relaxed price controls there are more supplies, but parents struggle to pay for what they need, she said. “Last year there were terrible shortages, this year there are less shortages, but the prices are through the roof.”

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

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

“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 food 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 country. Malnutrition in the youngest children can stunt development for life.

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

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

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

Many mothers are already fearful. Luisa García, not her real name, 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 cupboards and a bare fridge, and yet the food handouts he had been living on would end.

“On the day they said he was up to weight, I went away crying, because I had nothing to give him to eat. I counted on that food,” the 38-year-old recalled as she waited in line at a church soup kitchen, also 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 pain of an empty stomach. “We are all professionals and we spend almost everything we earn on food and basic needs,” said Rosalinda Rodríguez, a retired teacher who hasn’t bought new clothes since 2014, and has lost 12kg over the past year.

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

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

As with other former members of the middle class, the crisis has brought not just hunger but a hollowing out of his life.

Cinemas, meals out, gym membership, even hiking in hills around the city have been cut out by the need to stave off hunger. López, who asked for his real name to be withheld, has so little money left these days after paying for food and other essentials that he could only budget 15,000 bolívares, or a single US dollar, to enjoy the summer holiday with his son.

Instead of beach trips, he spent August weekends feeding those who are even worse off. “We thought no one would come but then we were full. Hunger doesn’t take holidays.”

The crisis has left the promises, and legacy, of former president Hugo Chávez, in tatters. He rose to power and stayed there until his death from cancer in 2013, in large part promising a more equitable distribution of the country’s oil wealth and food security for all. The benefits were real for many Venezuelans, and even if they have not proved sustainable they nurtured a fierce loyalty that carried Maduro to power and a base that is sticking 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 chance of going to bed on a full stomach.

“If we supported Chávez with oil at $100 a barrel, we have to support him now with it down at $40 a barrel,” said Henny Liendo, a cocoa cooperative member in the village of Chuao. Diets have shifted back to patterns more familiar to parents and grandparents, to fish, root vegetables and bananas, with less sugar, flour and meat.

He sees his curtailed diet and occasional hunger as sacrifices in a bigger war, 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 Chávez’s legacies has been the boxes of subsidised food, known colloquially by their Spanish initials CLAP, that were launched last year. They bundle imported food together for a low price. They never last a whole month, often little more than a week for large families, but they bring cheap food and much needed variety, staples-turned-luxuries like mayonnaise, butter and milk powder into homes.

When González, the activist, got his first government box after months of waiting, he sat down to a dinner of arepas, the national corn-flour patties, with butter and cheese and a cup of milky coffee. Once an everyday meal, it felt, he said, like a luxurious indulgence.

For the very poorest in this crumbling economy, though, even a dollar to pay for them can be out of reach. “We eat yuca, bananas, green papaya,” said Katiuska Pérez, not her real name, 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 parents she had been cutting back her own meals to boost their portions.

“I feed them first, so they have enough to eat, and we go without,” she said. Most recovered with feeding support, but on the latest visit her one-year-old had slipped back to six kilograms, a weight more appropriate for a baby half her age. Pérez said she feels hopeless. “We have been screwed for several years now. Everything that Chávez built with his hands has been kicked down.”

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/31/2017 at 10:31 am

    I never dreamed that “Hunger” and “Venezuela” would go in the same sentence.

    But some of the people up here in Canada and USA who keep going on about their diet and “big bones” – they may want to consider relocating to Venezuela …

    It does not seem to me you will be over-eating or asking for seconds there any time soon – and it has nothing to do with ‘will-power’, either.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 09/01/2017 at 10:58 am

    Meanwhile, a Retired Career Diplomat has a question about another communist:

    Why Pope Francis Keeps Overflying India

    M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline

    Pope Francis has been to Asia three times in as many years since ascending to the papacy in 2013. He has been to South Korea in 2014 and visited Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 2015.

    The Pope is returning to Asia again in November – to visit Bangladesh and Myanmar.

    Keeping aside the Philippines, the Christian population in all the other countries put together – South Korea, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar – comes to less than the size of the Christian population in India.

    Alas, the Holy Father is again overflying India en route to his Asian destinations. – Strange, isn’t it?

    Christianity was introduced to India in 52 AD by Thomas the Apostle who visited Muziris in Kerala. Yet, Pope Francis keeps overflying India, and never sets foot on Indian soil to bless our country and its people.

    So, one day recently I wrote to an Italian friend of many years, a brilliant intellectual and humanist who is close to the Vatican, expressing my bewilderment. His reply went like a lancer straight into my heart.

    He wrote back: “Pope wants to go to India but Modi has not yet invited him” and the Vatican is “very careful in not trying to push things … But India IS a priority for the Pope.”

    Is it electoral politics, again? Or, is it nervousness that the ‘core constituency’ might get upset? Or, is it plain guilty conscience that today’s India is the very anti-thesis of all that Pope Francis symbolises in our troubled world?

    One of the most hotly contested criticism of Pope Francis has been that he is a communist.

    It was an article on CNBC which raked up this controversy. Mark Koba who wrote the piece highlighted that Pope Francis has repeatedly cited “the pitfalls of capitalism, decrying global income inequality and equating low-wage labour to a form of slavery”, referring to comments made by the Holy Father since becoming pope.

    Indeed, Pope Francis’ comments on capitalism have raised eyebrows and caused some conservative Catholics in the United States to take pause.

    Of course, Pope Francis took the criticism in the right spirit when he was asked about it. Then came that famous interview with Eugenio Scalfari towards the end of last year where the following immortal exchange took place:

    Eugenio Scalfari: “You told me some time ago that the precept, “Love your neighbour as thyself” had to change, given the dark times that we are going through, and become “more than thyself.”

    So you yearn for a society where equality dominates. This, as you know, is the programme of Marxist socialism and then of communism. Are you therefore thinking of a Marxist type of society?”

    Pope Francis: “It has been said many times and my response has always been that, if anything, it is the communists who think like Christians.

    Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide. Not demagogues, not Barabbas, but the people, the poor, whether they have faith in a transcendent God or not. It is they who must help to achieve equality and freedom”.

    Clearly, the Indian elites are unable to grasp the profound relevance of Pope Francis to our country’s present moral and spiritual crisis.

    Perhaps, there is uneasiness that Pope Francis may say or do things during an India visit that exposes the rising intolerance and bigotry in our country?

    Yes, Pope Francis can say things that we Hindus do not get to hear from our religious leaders. Let me reproduce some of Pope Francis’ sayings:

    “Dear Brothers and Sisters, all walls fall.”

    “I do not pass judgment on people and politicians, I simply want to understand the suffering that their approach causes the poor and excluded.”

    “We are all sinners. But God heals us with an abundance of grace, mercy and tenderness.”

    “To change the world, we must be good to those who cannot repay us.”

    “Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities.”

    “Even today we raise our hands against our brother… We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, under pain of death. Violence and war lead only to death.”

    Of course, Pope Francis will embarrass India’s political class because he belongs to the ‘cattle class’.

    He was the first prelate who chose to be named after Saint Francis of Assisi who abandoned a world of luxury and preferred a life of piety dedicated to alleviating human suffering.

    Pope Francis too rejects the papal luxury that comes with the Petrine mission, and he maintains a simple, Jesuit lifestyle equipped with just the basics.

    He wears simple shoes, a simple watch, wears an iron cross and sits in simple chairs. He carries his own luggage. His statement is one of humility, and his pronouncements call for attention to the plight of the poor and disenfranchised.

    So, what gives? Is Pope Francis a communist? A socialist of some form? Is that what makes our ruling elites feel uneasy?

    No, none of it. Even communists and socialists do not live like him anymore.

    We need Pope Francis to come to India to heal our wounds and purge the bestiality that has entered into our soul.

    India’s fame for spirituality is taking a hard knock. One of the enduring assets of India’s ‘soft power’ is today in meltdown.

    Baba Gurmeet Ram Singh has exposed India’s sham democracy – and, equally, our tribe of spiritual ‘gurus’ stand exposed as hollow men.

    Just think of it: It took 15 years for the Indian state to pin him down as a ‘rapist’ – and, that too finally with the strong intervention of the judiciary.

    Why? Can someone explain? Reportedly, India’s present ruling elites patronised him, too.

    India needs all the mercy and compassion that Pope Francis is capable of showing. Our elites need counselling how to purge their venality.

    We should beseech Pope Francis to spend a year with us at least.

  • Gigi  On 09/02/2017 at 12:23 pm

    Another propaganda piece from the elitist leftist Guardian claptrap conveniently omitting the west by hook or by crook relentless involvement in regime change in Venezuela – from failed covert coup attempts to harsh economic sanctions to financial shenanigans. Venezuela is no Libya, its citizens are not a bunch of ‘ignorant Africans’ with a yearning to live in the west and the ‘slave existence’ that beckons. (Funny how, long ago, according to these same folks, they were hunted down and captured,contained and chained in big ships to these places to slave for the white man but today they’re willingly fork out large sums of money AND risk their life in small and rickety dingys to get to these very same places. And that is when their visa begging has failed. My, my…)

    Neither is Venezuela Syria, a very secular and diverse country more tolerant than the west, which would explain why conquering Syria remains so problematic. No, Venezuela is a deeply religious christian country whose beautiful and educated citizens take great pride in their culture and country. They are smart enough to recognize the dirty tricks of the west. The only way to conquer Venezuela is by the same brutal coups the west has instigated in the past, but Venezuelans and its South Americans nieghbours may decide enough is enough – especially if Russia and China is on their side.

    From a mainstream leftist publication: A History of Violence

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