Venezuela’s hospitals are crumbling and health care system is in shambles. Kidnappers prey on citizens whose families are rich enough to pay ransom and the capital, Caracas, is the world’s most murderous city. Food is scarce—and expensive. Falling oil prices have hit Caracas, a major exporter, especially hard. Pulitzer Center grantees Nadja Drost and Bruno Federico report on these problems in this segment for PBS NewsHour.
Judy Woodruff: Now to Venezuela, where what has been an economic crisis is leading to social and political upheaval, in a country once flush with oil money. In partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, videographer Bruno Federico and special correspondent Nadja Drost bring us this report from Caracas.
Nadja Drost, Special Correspondent: Dr. Dili Gonzalez walks into what is left of her hospital in Caracas. The 28-year-old physician is one of the few doctors left here, as Venezuela falls deeper into collapse, its health care system in shambles. We aren’t supposed to be here. We film with a hidden camera. The ceilings leak, vital equipment broken, with no spare parts, patients in deep need with few doctors attending.
Dr. Dili Gonzalez (through translator): These gloves aren’t sterile. You can’t operate with them. There’s nothing here.
Nadja Drost: Heat flows into the morgue. Water shortages have made the bathing areas putrid. This hospital is falling apart.
Dr. Dili Gonzalez (through translator): I would say we have a humanitarian crisis. There are no medications. You can’t get antibiotics. There were eight operating rooms. Now three or four function, with difficulty. One thing gets fixed, another breaks. We’re in bad shape.
Nadja Drost: Gonzalez says doctors have to send patients out to scrounge for everything from ibuprofen to chemotherapy agents. The doctors have to improvise with what little they have.
Dr. Dili Gonzalez (through translator): We’re responding to medical situations as though we are in a war. This is not Syria. We are in Venezuela.
Nadja Drost: This is Venezuela now.
Dr. Dili Gonzalez (through translator): We used to be the middle class. Now we’re lower class. Everyone is lower class, because no one has the economic capacity to go to the supermarket and buy everything they need, pay the rent, or pay for the condominium, pay utilities, with what they earn.
Nadja Drost: Gonzalez and her husband, also a doctor, share a small one-bedroom apartment, and can’t make ends meet with their monthly salary.
Dr. Dili Gonzalez (through translator): I earn 30,000 bolivares a month, which are about $30. For the apartment, we pay 90,000 bolivares in monthly rent.
Nadja Drost: Even so, they are some of the lucky ones; 10:00 a.m. on a weekday morning, hundreds wait to buy food, in shopping lines that have become a symbol of Venezuela’s economic crisis. We’re here in a middle-class neighborhood, but most of the people in this line come from poor neighborhoods from all across the city, because they can’t find food at subsidized prices in their neighborhoods. So they have come here to this supermarket, lining up throughout the night, in the hopes that when they can finally enter, they might come out with a bag of rice and a carton of milk.
Over a decade ago, the government of former President Hugo Chavez introduced price controls on certain basic goods, to make them more accessible to the poor, offering them at almost token prices. Now, with so little to go around, goods are rationed. After having been in line since midnight, Sandra Romero Maya leaves the supermarket.
Sandra Romero Maya (through translator): I want to eat a steak, because I can’t anymore. What do I have for food? What you see here, for 15 days, a week? Do you think that eight people can get by on this?
Nadja Drost: Venezuela hardly produces anything besides oil, importing almost all goods thanks to revenue from petroleum sales. But the deep drop in oil prices, along with what critics say is government mismanagement, have helped drive triple-digit inflation, the highest in the world, and has reduced the ability to import goods. Products from car parts to corn flour are difficult to get. The scarcity has created a huge black market. In the Petare neighborhood, contraband vendors called bachaqueros display their wares, goods purchased at regulated prices, and resold for much more. These vendors are illegal, and we’re advised to use a hidden camera to avoid getting attacked. But the black market contributes to the scarcity of regulated goods.
Andry Veloz (through translator): I leave at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning to go line up, and I return at 5:00 in the evening night without anything.
Nadja Drost: Andry Veloz, a frustrated mother, says it’s a rare day she returns with anything from the shopping line to the shantytown where she lives with her husband and three children. Sometimes, they eat just once a day. She and her husband blame the shortage of subsidized goods on the black market bachaqueros.
Leo Guerrero (through translator): These people, who like to rise at dawn to be able to buy everything and resell it. All of it expensive.
Andry Veloz (through translator): Butter costs 500 bolivares, and they sell it for 2,000.
Nadja Drost: That’s about $2 on the black market, or three days’ work at minimum wage. Soaring prices and scarce supply has led to looting of stores. Trucks are often attacked. Venezuelans are at the edge, and many increasingly blame the government for the crisis they are living. President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s chosen successor, says it’s an economic war waged by foreigners and businessmen hoarding supplies to drive up prices and destabilize the government. Tania Diaz is a member of Congress in Maduro’s party.
Deputy Tania Diaz, National Assembly, Venezuela (through translator): They have managed to create a huge distribution mafia. And they block consumers’ access to products, and increase prices along the way. This is simply a war economy.
Nadja Drost: Many of the government’s supporters are the poor, who have benefited most from the social programs rolled out under Chavez’s administration. Three years after his death, Chavez’s legacy lives on for many of his supporters, called Chavistas, his face adorning billboards and murals throughout Caracas. Chavistas feel their revolution has been unfairly covered by the international press. And we have to overcome their wariness before they bring us to a Chavista collective, trying to hold out the crisis by growing their own food. Tucked under a metro line, this is one of several community gardens the government is supporting to help alleviate food shortages. For Jose Pacheco, the garden’s coordinator, the government has made mistakes, but that doesn’t deter him from believing in Chavismo, Chavez’s brand of socialism.
Jose Pacheo Montaraz Revolutionary Work Collective (through translator): I will tell you something. No revolution in history has been easy. We’re in a tough spot. But we’re not going to go over to the right because of that. They don’t guarantee us anything.
Nadja Drost: Margarita Lopez Maya is a political analyst.
Margarita Lopez Maya, Central University of Venezuela: What is happening? Chavismo is being reduced to its core, to its hardest core, and there is a portion, a significant portion of Venezuelans that are disenchanted by Chavismo at this moment, but still haven’t done the steps to go to the opposition.
Nadja Drost: But more and more Venezuelans are turning against the government, lining up last month to add their names to a petition, led by the opposition, for a referendum to oust Maduro. Government supporters call it a coup attempt.
Man (through translator): They want to turn our country over to the United States.
Nadja Drost: With a political crisis and the economy in freefall, law and order have broken down. Violence racks Caracas, now the most murderous city in the world. As sun sets, much of the city goes quiet. Going out could mean becoming the latest victim of robbery or kidnapping.
Father of Kidnap Victim (through translator): At 2:00 in the morning, I was sleeping in my room. My telephone rang and it was my son. He said to me, “Papa, I’m kidnapped. I will put the kidnapper on.”
Nadja Drost: It was a year-and-a-half ago when the kidnappers told this man, whose identity we agreed to hide, that he had until morning to gather a ransom of $35,000 for the release of his son, who was put in a car with his captors, circling Caracas throughout the night. Kidnapping is big business in Caracas, and we wanted to speak to someone who does it. A trusted colleague led us to a kidnapper who calls himself “El Negro.” With the help of 50 gang members in his kidnapping ring, he studies and stalks a person for weeks if they look like they have money, to determine if they are worth grabbing. “Someone like you,” he says to me. Once a person is kidnapped, things move quickly.
“El Negro”, Kidnapper (through translator): You communicate with the family. And if the family doesn’t comply, we have to pressure them. There’s various ways. You can cut a finger and send it with a note. Or you leave a note at the door of their house. If the family doesn’t comply within 48 hours, we look for a way to eliminate the person or release them.
Nadja Drost: The father we spoke with was dealing with different kidnappers than El Negro’s gang, and they agreed to release his son for the $6,000 he had managed to gather.
Father of Kidnap Victim (through translator): As I was driving down, the kidnapper told me, “If you come across a police checkpoint, don’t worry, because we’re the same people.”
Nadja Drost: El Negro says the police turn a blind eye to his operations, for a price.
“El Negro”, (through translator): It’s a business more than anything. It’s the same authorities from whom we buy weapons.
Nadja Drost: Kidnappings are rarely reported, and there are no official statistics. But with a recent study estimating their number has quintupled this year, they show no sign of slowing down.
Father of Kidnap Victim (through translator): In the end, I think the economic situation and lack of money, impunity, and the lack of vigilance are the most important factors driving this wave of kidnapping.
Nadja Drost: After his son was released, he finished his studies within the year and, like so many others who could, left Venezuela. Most of Dr. Dili Gonzalez’s friends and colleagues have gone, too. Despite the crime, the food shortages, and challenges of getting by every day, she’s determined to stay to serve her patients.
Dr. Dili Gonzalez (through translator): I’m one of those who think, no, I’m not going to move out of the country. I’m going to fight until the end, until I can’t anymore.
Nadja Drost: For the “PBS NewsHour,” reporting with Bruno Federico, I’m Nadja Drost in Caracas.