Anyone Hungry?

 The New Humanitarian had a piece titled, “Venezuela’s Covid Fallout Leaves Children Dying And The Poor Scavenging For Food.” My first thought was, weren’t children dying and people starving in Venezuela before Covid-19? Before I lived in Venezuela I had never seen hunger up close and even then it took me a little while to notice it. We lived in a gated community with 24 hour guards strolling around the place. I used to watch with curiosity as they lifted the lids on the in-ground trash receptacles. They would pull out any two-gallon plastic water bottles they found. I asked my neighbor why they were doing it and he told me they took them home to fill with water, freeze, and sell the ice. OK, I thought, I guess our community should pay them a little more, perhaps, but it was just a passing thought.

 Then came the “Guarimba” of 2014. They were massive protests over the shortages of medicine and food and went on for a while. The Maduro regime killed 40 protesters and thousands were wounded or jailed…things calmed down and life went back to normal, which was pretty good, for me at least…for the Venezuelans, not so much. The shortages persisted but there weren’t any major protests for a few more years, although the shortages changed how everyone, including me, lived their lives.

 Looking for food became a much higher priority and I became more concerned so I always kept a few months supply (or longer) of staples at home. At one point the shortages got so bad I was buying things from a “bachaquero”, a black market guy. I had never thought of buying toilet paper and laundry detergent in bulk before. Now I had a year’s supply at my house. The good news was, at least for me, I had that option. For most Venezuelans…not so much. It became common to wait in the checkout line at the grocery store for an hour, and that’s not counting the long lines for distributing rationed items, which became almost everything eventually.

 Then the search for food became pretty much a full time job for many Venezuelans since their salaries didn’t allow them to buy much of anything except government-subsidized products like rice, pasta, and flour. People would track store deliveries on social media and rush over to get what they could before they ran out, sometimes waiting for hours in the 95 degree heat for the delivery to arrive. People kept their children out of school to assist if the food search so a family could cover more ground on a daily basis. On occasion things would get out of control when deliveries arrived so the military was charged with keeping control. When food was available, if the lines were too long, somebody would be made an example of (it certainly couldn’t be the government’s fault). One large drug store chain had their general manager imprisoned for “fomenting economic chaos”. The lines were too long and they didn’t have enough cash registers open. Who knew you could be jailed for that…and then it got worse.

 I had heard stories about a lot of people losing weight on, as the Venezuelans jokingly called it, “The Maduro Diet”. One year the average Venezuelan lost about twenty pounds. That’s not just people that could stand to lose a few pounds…it was everybody. Then I began to notice the guards at our community had changed their behavior. When they checked the in-ground trash containers they were no longer just looking for plastic bottles, they were looking for food.During periods when shortages weren’t the problem it was affordability. The shelves would be stocked with items few could afford since the Chavistas so drastically mismanaged the economy that the minimum wage, paid in the local currency, got as low as 60 cents a month…you heard me right…60 CENTS A MONTH!! Fruit trees were bare, iguanas basically disappeared from the landscape, farmers had crowds beat their livestock to death with rocks, and even zoo animals were slaughtered. Most trucks on the road had signs saying “This truck carries no food” so they wouldn’t be attacked. In recent years things have improved but they haven’t gotten that much better. My point is, people have been starving and dying in the world of 21st Century Bolivarian Socialism for a long time. (2014  was well before there were sanctions) Now…to the article…

 7 million people (25% of the population) are in need of humanitarian assistance. The World Food Program estimates 11 million people face acute food insecurity (not knowing where your next meal is coming from) and the number is higher among the indigenous peoples at 56%. Childhood malnutrition was up 20% in 2021 and is up another 33% in the first 1/2 of this year. 1/3 of children suffer stunting.

 In 2021 Maduro began allowing NGOs into Venezuela. They were previously denied to “preserve the ‘dignity of the people’? ” Nothing says “dignity” like digging for food in the back of garbage trucks. Although NGOs are now allowed, access is still limited. (Hunger is a powerful weapon…ask anybody from Somalia)

 In May the cost of feeding a family of four for a month  was $477. The minimum wage, which was at about $28 a month a little while ago (after Maduro’s latest re-denomination of the currency) is now down to $24 a month. (Remember, the UN standard for extreme poverty is earning a dollar a day) Most families survive by remittances from family members abroad (approximately 6.4 million Venezuelans have fled 21st Century Bolivarian Socialism …and counting) but that money has been under pressure, first from Covid-19 and now from global economic conditions.

 A nutritionist at JM de los Rios Hospital says she sees a constant stream of kwashioker cases, (I never heard of it and neither has my spell-check) which is severe malnutrition causing swelling under the skin in children and babies, which she last saw in Guatemala in 1989.

 Many adult women breastfeed their children for longer than recommended because they can’t afford food and many adolescent mothers (teen pregnancy is common) are unable to breastfeed due to malnutrition and give their young children food inappropriate for their age causing diarrhea, malnutrition, and death.

 Hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with the health crisis due to lack of electricity and water, let alone medication and basic equipment that is available, such as catheters, is typically only for adults as they’re too big for children.

 The government-subsidized CLAP food program, started in 2016, is woefully inadequate and unreliable. It primarily consists of low quality food items, many past their expiration date, and none of it is suitable for small children. CLAP was originally supposed to be a low-cost mechanism for the poor to give basic nutrition to their families with food boxes scheduled to be delivered every two weeks. The reality is that deliveries to most people only show up every month or two. If you run afoul of the Chavistas (Remember, we said food can be a powerful weapon) your delivery may not show up at all.

 In summary, the article did a good job of detailing the plight of the Venezuelan people and certainly Covid-19 exacerbated the situation but starvation and death are nothing new to the long-suffering people of Venezuela. The effects of 21st Century Bolivarian Socialism were masked by the massive borrowing under Hugo Chavez ($60 billion from China, etc.) which was unnecessary as oil prices, from which the Venezuelan government receives 95% of it’s revenue, were at all-time highs for a number of years. When Maduro took power the loans dried up, oil prices fell, and the rapid downward spiral kicked into high gear. After 8 consecutive years of recession (Venezuela lost 80% of GDP) and an over 4 year bout of hyperinflation, things have gotten marginally better and the Venezuelan economy should actually experience growth this year.

 That said,95% of Venezuelans still live in poverty with 76% in extreme poverty. Venezuelans continue to starve and die every day even as the Maduro regime continues to buy military equipment and send oil and fuel to Cuba every month, not to mention the estimated $9 billion a year the government receives from illegal trafficking of drugs, gold, and smuggling. The next time the Democratic Socialists of America send a contingent to Caracas to be wined and dined by Maduro (and come away saying how caring and compassionate they found him to be) they should take a walk a little ways from their five star hotel, they won’t have to go far, and see the people digging for food in the back of garbage trucks. “Viva la Revolucion”!!!

 More tomorrow….



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