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Venezuela in Crisis: Families Are Fed Up With Going Hungry

A national survey found 12 percent of Venezuelans skipped at least one meal a day last year and the economic situation has deteriorated since then. Last week a woman died from wounds she received when police shot into a food riot.
Imagen por Kyodo vía AP Images.

Every day Shirly Delgado makes a choice — whether to do without breakfast, lunch, or dinner. One of them has to go if she wants her three children to eat three times a day.

"I delay breakfast for as long as I can. Instead of doing it early, I serve it around 10 or 11 in the morning, so it overlaps with lunch," she says. "If I eat lunch, I don't have breakfast. It's one or the other."

The family lives in La Pastora, a poor area in western Caracas, where Delgado lines up for hours every day outside her neighborhood's supply store to see what she can get, which is rarely enough. It's been months since her four year old drank milk.


The National Survey of Life Conditions, known as the ENCOVI and carried out by three Venezuelan universities, found that 12 percent of the population were eating two or less meals a day in 2015.

Venezuela's economic crisis — marked by rampant inflation and chronic shortages of subsidized goods — has got even worse this year triggering a wave of food riots in recent weeks.

Some have broken out in the long lines that start forming long before dawn in the hope of getting subsidized goods that are always in short supply and often non-existent. Other have involved storming government food trucks or stores.

The police response also appears to be getting more extreme. This Monday Jenny Ortiz died from wounds she received the day before when police shot into a crowd of hundreds that was breaking into a government warehouse in the city of San Cristóbal, near the border with Colombia.

Local reports said the 42-year-old Ortiz was looking for flour and sugar when the security forces shot her in the face.

José Vielma, governor of the Tachira state, where San Cristóbal is located, admitted to reporters that police bullets killed the woman. He also sought to distance the authorities from any blame, claiming that the riot was "orchestrated by the right," and that any officer who shot into the crowd did so "of their own will."

Vielma's words echoed the line set by President Nicolás Maduro who has repeatedly claimed that Venezuela's desperate economic situation — which includes newborns dying in hospitals for want of the most basic care — is the product of a plot hatched by rich Venezuelans backed by foreign imperialists. Maduro alleges that the plot is rooted in hatred of the "socialist" policies promoted first by his predecessor and mentor, the late and much-loved President Hugo Chávez.


Related: Crisis in Venezuela: Anti-Government Protests Descend Into Violence

But as the crisis intensifies, patience is running thin with that argument even among once die-hard Chavistas in the capital, and the political opposition's attempts to force a recall referendum on Maduro are gathering steam.

Police used tear gas to break up a protest in downtown Caracas late last week, just a few blocks from the presidential headquarters at Miraflores. "We are hungry," protesters shouted. "We want food."

According to the 2015 ENCOVI survey, up to 12 percent of the children living in cities do not get enough food. The figure rises to 19 percent of children who live in provincial cities. It increases to 27 out of every 100 children in rural areas.

For many families, the government program providing free breakfast and lunch for school kids used to represent a safety net. Some schools, however, are now informing parents this is no longer possible.

Maryeni, a resident in the poor neighborhood of Catia in western Caracas, says she keeps her five-year-old at home when she cannot afford to give him food to take to school. "I don't have enough money," she said. "I don't know how these children will turn out, hungry and without an education."

The Bengoa Association for Eating and Nutrition works closely with Venezuelan schools and has been monitoring nutritional levels in the country for decades. It calculates that between 25 and 30 percent of children are not going to school.


"There's a shortage in the network of distribution, and schools receive food subsidized by the government, and if they don't get food they cannot fulfill the school dining program," said Maritza Landaeta de Jiménez, a doctor attached to the association. "Mothers have no food and they prefer to leave their kids sleeping at home."

Landaeta is careful to stress that what is happening in Venezuela is not a famine but hunger rooted in the economic crisis and distribution issues. She also underlines that the situation is deteriorating.

"Things have quickly turned worse," she said. "The nutritional value of the families' diets is dropping fast."

Video via Yusbany Pérez/YouTube

Insufficient calories is not the only problem. The ENCOVI study defines animal protein as "a luxury food item." It found that only 43 percent of Venezuelans can afford to eat dairy products, 25 percent buy eggs, and 29 percent can buy fruit.

In its most recent attempt to tackle the problem, the government created local committees that go house to house handing out bags of food with basic goods, such as rice, milk, oil, sugar, and cornflour. The network, however, reaches only part of the population and is also not enough to cover a family's dietary requirements.

Meanwhile, at the same time as President Maduro blames the food shortages on an "economic war" he says the private sector is waging against Venezuela's socialist government, the private sector blames government mismanagement and corruption. Venezuela's manufacturing sector — which is working at 42 percent of its capacity, according to Conindustria, the country's industrial chamber — stresses its lack of access to foreign currency to buy supplies and raw materials.

At the same time Imports have also dropped dramatically. Trade minister, Miguel Pérez Abad, recently told Reuters that imports have decreased 60 percent compared to 2015. So with local production contracts and imports tumbling, no wonder the shelves are empty. According to economist Luis Vicente León, of the consulting agency Datanálisis, about 83 percent of products are not available in Caracas. And the capital city is by far the best supplied place in the country.

Lining up outside one store, 30-year-old Nena said she had just shared one plate of food with her partner and their three children. "There's just not enough food for everyone," she said.

Related: Venezuela's Falling Apart and the President Is Sending Troops to 'Protect' the People

Follow Alicia Hernandez on Twitter @por_puesto