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Story Publication logo June 23, 2017

Venezuelans Suffer Deadly Scarcity of Food and Medicine


A violinist plays in front of Venezuelan National Guard during an anti-government protest in Caracas. Image by Bruno Federico. Venezuela, 2017.

As Venezuela’s social and economic crisis deepens, thousands of citizens are taking to the streets...

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Image by Bruno Federico. Venezuela, 2017.
Image by Bruno Federico. Venezuela, 2017.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to the crisis in Venezuela, which takes many forms, economic, political, social, but perhaps nothing is more harmful day to day than shortages of medicine and food.

Put simply, many Venezuelans are starving to death. And their government often can't or won't do anything to help.

Special correspondent Nadja Drost and videographer Bruno Federico report, and a warning: images and accounts in this story may upset some viewers.

NADJA DROST: An hour outside of the capital, Caracas, traces of a once-productive industrial and agricultural region flank the highway outside the town of Yare, an abandoned factory, a farm, deserted and overgrown, the carcass of a government dairy project.

These buildings, like the economy they once helped support, are in collapse.

Katiuska Morales' husband can only find occasional work as a day laborer, and the family faces nationwide shortages of food at runaway inflation prices.

KATIUSKA MORALES, Mother (through interpreter): Everything is expensive. What one earns in three or four days of work is what it costs to buy one kilogram of rice.

NADJA DROST: Morales can't feed her family.

KATIUSKA MORALES (through interpreter): When the boy says, mama, I want food, I can't find the way to tell him there is none.

NADJA DROST: The only thing in the family's kitchen today are mangoes, stored in the oven under the attentive eye of 3-year-old David, who searches amongst the bruised fruit for a good one.

With its economy in freefall, and food prices skyrocketing, many Venezuelans are eating less and less every day. One recent study found that, in the last year, 75 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of 19 pounds. But it is children who are suffering the most, and severe malnutrition among them is rising at an alarming rate.

Three out of Morales' six children have been diagnosed with severe malnutrition. She's most worried about her 10-month old baby.

KATIUSKA MORALES (through interpreter): I see her small. She doesn't grow. She doesn't try crawling or walking. I feel I have to be careful that she doesn't fall to the side. It's like she's faint.

NADJA DROST: Back in Caracas, Susana Raffalli, who specializes in food emergencies for the Catholic charity Caritas, has carried out a study on malnutrition.

SUSANA RAFFALLI, Caritas (through interpreter): We have gone from having 8 percent of children with severe malnutrition in October, to 12 percent in just four months. When a child loses 30 to 40 percent of their weight, that's called severe malnutrition. Why is that severe? Because the child is so skinny, it is at risk of dying.

NADJA DROST: In a country sitting on the biggest oil reserves in the world, why has it become so difficult for so many to eat? Almost entirely reliant on oil exports, Venezuela barely produces anything of its own, and has relied hugely on food imports. But with oil revenues down, corruption and an economy in shambles, the government hardly has any dollars to sell to importers.

SUSANA RAFFALLI (through interpreter): There is at least a 30 to 40 percent shortage in the availability of food, because it's not being produced, nor is it getting imported. We don't know how this void will get filled.

NADJA DROST: To alleviate the scarcity, the government recently decided to loosen its monopoly on many food imports to allow other importers to bring in staples. Some shortages have eased, but now, with triple-digit inflation driving up prices, few can afford to pay for even the most basic goods.

We're on our way to one of the biggest hospitals in Caracas to visit the pediatric unit. But four years ago, when the crisis started deepening, the government banned the use of any cameras inside hospitals. Because of that, and the fact that the hospital and the area around it is full of military and government-aligned militia, we're going to have to try to enter unnoticed, and with a hidden camera.

Once inside, we follow Dr. Livia Machado, an expert in child nutrition, into the emergency ward for children.

This baby's diagnosis? Malnutrition, at seven months old.

DR. LIVIA MACHADO, Pediatrician (through interpreter): She was born six-and-a-half pounds. Now she weighs seven. The economic conditions now don't allow her to buy formula.

WOMAN (through interpreter): It became more expensive, and I couldn't afford it.

DR. LIVIA MACHADO (through translator): The most important thing is that there's no access to baby formula. You can't get it in the country. And when you can, it's at such high prices.

How much did you pay the last time for formula?

WOMAN: Twenty thousand bolivars.

NADJA DROST: That's a third of a month's minimum wage for three days' worth of formula. Five of the 20 children in this unit have severe malnutrition. Dr. Machado worries about the increase in cases she sees.

DR. LIVIA MACHADO (through interpreter): But even more worrisome, and something I have never seen and that strikes me as critical, are children who are between half-a-year and a year-old and they have never even gained two pounds in their whole life.

NADJA DROST: Like this baby.

DR. LIVIA MACHADO (through interpreter): Her condition is very critical, from a respiratory and metabolic perspective, and everything that triggered this was hunger.

NADJA DROST: I ask how many months old she is.

DR. LIVIA MACHADO (through interpreter): Eleven months, almost a year. And she doesn't even weigh nine pounds.

NADJA DROST: Dr. Machado says this baby's mother hardly eats anything herself in order to give what she can to her six children. But it's been woefully inadequate, and brought the baby to a critical state. The child has suffered two cardiac arrests here. She died the next day.

But it's not just the deadly malnutrition. There is little medication to treat the many complications that it can cause. Hospitals have less than 5 percent of the medications they need. the desperation of doctors and nurses trying to work with broken equipment and without lifesaving treatments is driving them into the streets to protest.

What do they want?

WOMAN (through interpreter): Supplies for hospitals, food, medicine, to be able to attend to patients.

NADJA DROST: The flow of medicines into the country has plummeted after most foreign drug companies cut off ties with Venezuela over $6 billion-plus in unpaid debts. To ease the shortage, these doctors and nurses are demanding that the government open what they call a humanitarian channel to allow for donations of medications.

The government has said that accepting humanitarian relief would expose Venezuela to foreign intervention. But some organizations are finding ways around what they say amounts to a government ban on aid.

Accion Solidaria is part of a coalition promoting health rights, Codevida. Its president, Francisco Valencia, leads us to a storage room that's been converted to what looks like a well-organized ad hoc pharmacy that accepts donations of medications and distributes them to Venezuelans.

FRANCISCO VALENCIA, Accion Solidaria (through interpreter): Here, all of these medications come from abroad. Because of the situation here, you can't get these medications here. Here, we have painkillers, antibiotics. There's medicine for children as well.

NADJA DROST: The supplies are sent by Venezuelans and other donors from around the world, but in small packages, to avoid suspicion and bypass customs authorities.

FRANCISCO VALENCIA (through interpreter): Door-to-door deliveries. They're sent privately.

NADJA DROST: Like a courier company.

Once Valencia and his colleagues categorize the new shipments, they announce their stockpile over Twitter, Facebook and on local radio stations. Their hot line number is flooded with calls from Venezuelans wanting to claim the medicines

FRANCISCO VALENCIA (through interpreter): So far, we have been able to give medication to over 5,000 people.

NADJA DROST: But Valencia knows that what they provide is a mere drop in a sea of need.

FRANCISCO VALENCIA (through interpreter): If you see this here, it's not a quantity to supply all of Venezuela.

NADJA DROST: Valencia and others in health organizations say the government needs to recognize that Venezuela is facing a humanitarian crisis, and one that warrants government and international action.

SUSANA RAFFALLI (through interpreter): What we're asking is that they do something and make available the resources that are needed here, because it's not just Caritas that is sounding the alarm of what will happen. It is happening to us. And there are children with malnutrition dying in hospitals.

NADJA DROST: For the PBS NewsHour, reporting with Bruno Federico, I'm Nadja Drost in Caracas.



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