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Venezuelans are risking their lives to access medical supplies

At least one woman drowned recently trying to get to Colombia to buy medication, and many others are now locked in a constant and desperate search for supplies.
Imagen por Miguel Gutiérrez/EPA

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Earlier his month Venancia Cárdenas waded into the Táchira river that runs through the sleepy Venezuelan frontier municipality of Pedro María Ureña.

The 44-year-old mother wanted to cross into Colombia in order to buy medication for a relative that she couldn't get hold of at home. She took to the water because Venezuela closed the mountain border post last year in the name of cracking down on smuggling.


It isn't clear exactly what happened, but it seems the river suddenly swelled before Cárdenas could get to the other side. She drowned.

"You know how things are here," said her devastated sister, Deysi Cárdenas, who was in no mood to give details when she accepted a brief phone interview. "We don't have any medicine."

Venezuela's acute economic crisis — which includes a deep recession, hyperinflation, and an official exchange rate that bears no relation to the buying power of the local currency — is hitting every part of daily life.

It has condemned much of the country to getting out of bed long before dawn and then wait for hours outside supermarkets in the often futile hope of obtaining subsidized basic goods. It means arranging and rearranging daily routines in order to maximize limited access to electricity and water. And it is increasingly leading to looting sprees and violent protests, some of which have ended with deaths.

For many Venezuelans, the crisis has also brought a never ending, and increasingly desperate, search for the medication that family members need to be able to function or survive.

Like Cárdenas, Alisis Zambrano also recently headed for Colombia. She went by a different route, travelling over 700 miles from her home in Maturín, in the northeast, to the frontier state of Zulia.

Related: Venezuela in Crisis: Families Are Fed Up With Going Hungry

The Venezuelan government's efforts to shut the border have not stopped trucks and cars crossing back and forth via clandestine dirt roads, some of them carrying medications to sell at inflated prices. Zambrano couldn't afford to pay the markup, so she sneaked out of the country herself and found what she needed — medication for her eight-year-old boy who has leukemia — in the Colombian frontier city of Maicao.


She told her story a few months later, while sitting in the air-conditioned waiting room of the Pediatric Specialties Hospital in the city of Maracaibo, about 80 miles from the border.

"I've not been able to find the medicine we need for a month," she said. "There are more opportunities here than in Maturin, but I still haven't found any."

The pictures of smiling children on the walls did nothing to brighten the mood in the waiting room. Another mother recalled a friend who was mugged on the border just after she had obtained the medication she needed for her child.

"Now, besides what we must suffer because of their condition, we live with the worry of not knowing if we'll be able to get their meds," said Auribel Colina as she hugged her daughter, who also has cancer.

Watch the VICE News documentary Blackout: Venezuela's Activist Journalists

The sense of helplessness is also striking at the country's medical professionals. María Cecilia Gómez works in the oncology department at a children's hospital in the capital Caracas.

"Do you see this list? These are all the treatments we don't have," she said, fiddling with the pen she was holding and then with her necklace. "Mothers do all they can to get the medicines. When they bring them to us we have to check them, because some have an uncertain origin. It's really complicated to battle cancer under this conditions."

Such stories ensure that few believe the recent claim by Health Minister Luisana Melo that the country is producing 75 percent of the medication the population needs.


According to the largest association of doctors' organizations in the country, the shortage of medication in hospitals and drug stores stands at around 90 percent.

'Dogs eat the placentas and the flies are everywhere. No wonder he got sick.'

In May, doctors applauded the opposition-controlled congress' approval of a law that promised to open a "humanitarian channel" for medication donated from abroad. Then the supreme court blocked the new legislation on the grounds that it gave foreign powers control of functions that should reside in the presidency.

Meanwhile, although the desperation on display to get hold of particular drugs grabs most attention, shortages of basic supplies — such as gloves, sterile wound dressings, or alcohol — mean that small infections and other problems can easily spiral out of control.

The woman on the end of the phone described what she saw in the maternity ward of a hospital in the state of Carabobo, about a couple of hours from Caracas, where her newborn nephew became the host to fly larvae.

"There is no air conditioning or mosquito nets," she said, requesting that her name not appear in print. "Dogs eat the placentas and the flies are everywhere. No wonder he got sick."

The woman said that the baby underwent surgery to remove a seething mass of larvae from his belly button, but the problem didn't stop there.

"Gauzes, compresses, antibiotics," she recalled, speaking quickly on a snatched break from her job. "We had to search outside the hospital for everything because the hospital had nothing."


Related: Venezuela in Crisis: Families Are Fed Up With Going Hungry

The search for medication for the critically ill, particularly when they are children, tends to absorb entire families.

Alejandro Rodríguez spends his days telling commuters on buses around Caracas about his cousin's daughter and her struggles with cancer, and then asking them to buy two pens for 300 bolivars, around 30 cents.

"Here, I have the pictures and the medical reports," he told a bus full of passengers on a recent day. "You can see I'm not lying."

Shows of solidarity can also go beyond the family.

"A teacher in my son's school died one week after giving birth because she did not have medicines," said Karla Salcedo Ramos, a reporter at Venevisión network. "I cried a lot, but then I asked myself what all the weeping was good for."

Ramos set up a donation point run by media workers in the relatively well-to-do neighborhood of Chacao in the capital. On a recent day the group collected 10 boxes full of supplies they planned to give to local hospitals.

"My husband died of emphysema not long ago," said Rosa Mora as she dropped off some old medications, some of which she had got hold of in Mexico. "I have many leftover medicines and perhaps they can help others."

Sufferers themselves are also seeking ways to help each other deal with the crisis. Mildred Varela belongs to a WhatsApp group created by and for breast cancer sufferers that both looks for, and helps channel, donations of medication.

"I don't feel ashamed. If I have to knock on the vice president's door I will, because I won't allow a child to stay without treatment or without the proper attention," she said. "My body got sick, but not my soul."

Related: Venezuela's opposition just took one step closer to ousting President Maduro

Follow Alicia Hernandez on Twitter @por_puesto