Venezuela – The pre-dawn darkness is alive with the din of small motorcycles, the calls of vendors handing out coffee and the sleepy grumbling of hundreds of people forced to wait in line.
It’s 4am on a day in May and queues are already snaking out from supermarkets all over the capital, Caracas.
It’s because there is not enough food to go round. Unsuccessful price controls, a shortage of foreign currency and a global drop in the price of oil, the commodity that makes up 95 percent of Venezuela’s foreign exchange earnings, has left the country struggling to import what its citizens need.
Most of them are faced with a stark choice – pay inflated rates on the black market, or queue for hours outside a supermarket. Yithanyili Caballero doesn’t have the money for pirate goods so she is here outside the Unicasa supermarket in the middle-class Caracas neighbourhood El Paraiso.
She holds her baby, Ashley, in her arms, trussed up in blankets and a tiny woollen hat against the early morning chill. “It’s terrible,” she says. “She’s tired, hungry, cold but we need to be here to get what she needs.” But it is 5am and they are too far back in the queue to guarantee that anything will be left by the time they get to the front. Yithanyili would love to get milk for Ashley, but that’s especially rare and she knows she won’t find it here.
Nearer to the front of the queue, some people are sitting on camp chairs they have brought with them. Others sleep on flattened cardboard boxes that double up as mattresses. They arrived the moment the supermarket closed the day before and bedded down for the night. At the moment the mood is calm. The tension will arrive with the lorries carrying what little produce is on sale today.
That tension has increasingly spilled over into the looting of supermarkets and markets across the country, with the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence estimating that more than 10 incidents of looting occur each day. On June 14, 400 people were arrested after food riots in the city of Cunama, with reports of at least three deaths in the disturbance.
El Paraiso is normally a quiet neighbourhood, but the army has still been posted around the corner from the Unicasa supermarket. When the food lorries arrive, soldiers wade in, handing out numbered tickets to try and keep some order.
The presence of “bachaqueros” – the growing number of Venezuelans who make their living from buying up goods and reselling them for a profit – is almost inevitable. It is one of the few Venezuelan industries on the rise: the polling company Datanalisis estimates that 57 percent of the population now buy from them. They often work in organised groups to secure the first places in the queues. Just the thought that they might be present, ratchets up the tension levels among those waiting in line.
When it looks as if the supermarket might be opening for business, things heat up. People shout, fingers are pointed, the crowd swirls around the soldiers as they try to restore order. It looks like it might get beyond them – but then people finally begin entering the store.
An hour or so later, Yithanyili, her husband and Ashley emerge. The fruits of their seven-hour wait are two bottles of oil and two bags of pasta. “We’re tired of this. We’re hungry, in need and this has to change,” Yithanyili says. They are just starting their day in the queues. Getting on their small scooter, they head to another line somewhere else in the city.
We visited Beibi Banquez on the day she finally ran out of food altogether. She lives in a small, dilapidated apartment in the city of Ocumare del Tuy. The government gave Beibi her flat in better times, as they did everyone in the block, but now the furniture inside it is rickety and sparse, the electricity has been cut off, there is no running water and there is very little to eat.
Beibi and her three boys, aged between four and 11, have been surviving on one or two meals of beans and arepas, a corn roll, a day for the past few weeks. She is stick thin and although she has recently had tuberculosis and the doctors say she should be eating six times a day to recover, any food she has goes to her children.
The oldest is suffering from a fever and all of them lie listless on the sofa. “I feel humiliated that I can’t give my sons what they deserve, just whatever’s left around. It’s half what they should be eating,” she says, leaning against a fridge that is empty more often than not. “They’re weak because there’s no food. Before the neighbours said ‘Your children never get ill’ but now they’ve started to get sick a lot.”
But today turns into a good day. Beibi has just managed to get hold of one of the food bags government workers are handing out in the neighbourhood. At three in the afternoon the family finally eat their first meal. It’s just the bare minimum to fill her children’s bellies – rice pasta, flour, butter and beans. They haven’t eaten meat since Christmas.
Malnutrition is on the rise in Venezuela, according to Maritza Jimenez, head of the food NGO Bengoa. She says it is chiefly affecting the working class, old and young – those who can’t afford to buy food on Venezuela’s black market. Some call it “hidden hunger” because patients often appear chubby – bloated on carbohydrates and fatty foods. “You can see fat people, but what’s happened is that people prioritise food with calories. Because we’re in crisis you need that to move. Forty-eight percent of the food people spend on is flour, sugar so they get fat but they’re anaemic.”
Jimenez says that the problem is even more acute in the Venezuelan countryside. “The further you get from the urban zones the worse it is. Even close to Caracas there are schools where the children have 40 percent malnutrition. You notice they’re not growing and are losing weight. There are also schools where about 24 percent of the children are not going to school because the mothers prefer they sleep so they don’t have to eat so much.”
Marily Pereira, a nutritionist working in a Caracas state hospital, took a break from seeing patients to tell us that more and more people are arriving with illnesses related to bad diet. “We’re getting patients in ER for things which we’ve realised are caused by malnutrition – skin problems, lesions. When you look at them they’re caused by malnutrition.”
But going to a hospital in Venezuela is now a risky business in itself. The state health system is in crisis, racked by the shortages affecting the country across the board.
In a car park in the city of Merida, we waited to see it first hand. Two young doctors had a plan to smuggle us in – journalists aren’t allowed to film in hospitals so they brought white coats to disguise us as staff. They took us on a three-hour tour of the University Hospital of the Andes, through crowded wards with desperate patients, courtyards with broken medical gear and rubbish beginning to pile up. We were shown monitors that didn’t work, cupboards full of broken defibrillators and, above all, staff anxious to share with us how impossible it was to do their jobs.
We asked them what they lacked. The almost uniform answer was, “Everything”. Orfram Moreno, one of the young doctors secretly guiding us around, elaborated: “We don’t have gloves, we don’t have saline, we don’t have antibiotics, we don’t have painkillers, we don’t have morphine, we don’t have anaesthesia, we don’t have muscle relaxers.”
The state-run system should provide medicine for patients but they simply haven’t got the supplies. Instead families have to try and find it themselves, foraging on Caracas’ black market or crossing the border illegally into Colombia.
Luna Martinez spent all she had and finally scraped together the drugs and equipment for surgeons to be able to operate on her six-month-old son, Thiago, who has a swelling on the brain.
But the doctors had further bad news. The air conditioning in the operating theatre was broken – it had been for months. Without it, they simply couldn’t perform the surgery – the risk of bacterial infection was too high. Thiago would have to wait. “I feel really helpless,” Luna told us. “Especially this month when we have everything we need for the operation and the operating theatre isn’t ready. It’s out of our hands, we can’t fix the air conditioning, we can’t decontaminate the place and our boy is getting worse. In the month and a half we’ve been waiting his head has swollen by 12 centimetres.”
Once word got round that journalists were in the hospital, relatives came looking for us, all wanting to show the conditions their loved ones were enduring. One man pulled me into a room to see an infection extending all along the outer thigh of his elderly mother. He said that she had got it after an operation. He then opened the locker holding her possessions. Cockroaches scurried away from the light. Staff said cleaning products were as hard to come by as everything else.
We climbed higher in the building, to the children’s wards, where two young nurses described their anger and frustration at not having the drugs to give to patients who needed them – and the tension between staff and patients that often resulted. As we completed the interview, they left the ward to attend to a young patient who was having an epileptic seizure in a room further down the corridor. But there was little they could do; they had nothing to treat him with.
We went from floor to floor, speaking to more desperate patients and staff. Except for one floor that the doctors didn’t want to stop at. The second floor. It was deserted and in complete darkness. As Dr Orfram hurried us further down the stairwell, he explained that it had all started when the light bulbs were stolen. “That darkness has been really facilitating for the thieves to rob us, so in this year they’ve probably robbed about 10 to 15 medical residents with guns and with knives – within the hospital and on that floor.”
Everywhere our team went people told us that they were living in fear of robbery, kidnapping and assault. It’s nothing particularly new; crime in Venezuela has been steadily increasing over more than a decade.
It affects the rich and the poor. On a small plot of land outside the village of San Juan Morros in Central Venezuela we met 62-year-old Agustin Hererra. He was planting fruit crops with his two sons, trying to start again after a three-year drought. What had really reduced him to deep poverty was a burglary. He showed us the lump on his head where he had been beaten, but it was the loss of all he had worked towards that really hurt.
“We were working our way up to being middle class and then seven years ago the thugs came. They tied us up, broke four of my ribs. Some of them wanted to rape the women and they put a gun on my boy. He was so innocent he started laughing because it tickled him.”
The gang tied up his family and took all he had.
But Hererra still supports the government. He says that poor people like him were treated as slaves in the countryside before Hugo Chavez and his socialist movement came along. They gave him a voice and also a grant to buy his own farm. But that farm is gone now. When he was robbed he had to move, then the drought came.
Now he is selling his precious farming machinery just to survive. His weathered face creases with pain and humiliation as he talks of it.
We left Hererra an hour or so before dusk with his neighbours urging us to get back on the main highway. Even in this poor village, gangs roamed at night with impunity, they said.
We travelled on to visit cattle ranchers near the plains town of Calabozo. Over beer and beef soup they told us how the owners of the ranch next door simply had to watch as robbers carted off their belongings in the family’s own car. Everyone we talked to had a story of suffering at the hands of criminals. In the countryside, it seemed, the one inevitability was that everyone would get a turn to be a victim.
Even so, the cities remain the epicentre of crime, particularly Caracas, the most violent place outside a war zone in 2015, according to a study by CCSP-JP, a Mexican NGO. And as crime has increased, so the once vibrant Caracas nightlife has declined.
On a warm Tuesday evening, we headed to Chacao Plaza, one of Caracas’ wealthiest districts, to catch Runners Venezuela, some of the only ones who still dare to hit the Caracas city streets at night.
They say that running en masse keeps them safe against opportunistic street criminals. Up to 300 people turn up twice a week to pound the city streets. “We run in groups because there’s so much insecurity and we can protect each other,” explained Anabel Marcano, a school teacher who started running three years ago and, aged 54, has just run her first marathon.
In the cool of the late afternoon the first Lycra-clad members to arrive chatted in groups before the run was due to start. It became clear that this was as much about socialising as exercising. Members told us that they fear heading out to bars and clubs, so they do this instead.
The Runners Venezuela group are mostly middle to upper class, but widespread crime, and the fear that it brings, seemed to affect all of those we encountered in our travels, regardless of their standing in society.
As if to underline that, we later heard that the scooter of Yithanyili Caballero, the mother we’d encountered queueing at the supermarket because she didn’t have the money for blackmarket goods, had been stolen. Now, she couldn’t even get across town to queue any more.
Lack of food, lack of services, lack of medicine, lack of security: it’s a formidable collection of problems that have been slowly enveloping Venezuela over the past few years.
Many are already fed up. The popularity of the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, has dropped to 20 percent, according to results released in May by international pollster Gallup, and the multi-party opposition say they have collected and now validated enough signatures to move to the next step in implementing a referendum to remove Maduro from power.
But the thorny issue in Venezuela is when that referendum would take place. If the multi-step process can be completed this year, there will be full scale presidential elections. But if the vote happens after January 10, 2017, Maduro would merely step aside and his vice president and supporter Aristobulo Isturiz would take over.
The opposition claims that the government and the National Electoral Council, which declared that 600,000 signatures were fraudulent, are stalling. Maduro has publicly said that there will not be a referendum this year, if ever.
Some frustrated opposition supporters have hit the streets to try and push things along. Most of the marches we attended were heated but peaceful on both sides, although one errupted into violence when some protesters threw stones at police, stopping their advance.
Corresponding rallies have been organised among government supporters. The rhetoric on both sides is virulent, dialogue is non-existent – as it has been for years in this deeply polarised nation. Maduro has repeatedly called the current crisis the result of an “economic war” being waged against the country by the opposition, whom he labels right-wing oligarchs. He accuses them of participating in an international conspiracy led by the United States to topple his government.
But the images that resonate most are not those of the country’s angry and unreconciled politicians. They are the queues, the patients, the victims of violence. Those like Beibi, the mother struggling to feed her children; Agustin, the farmer ruthlessly robbed by criminals; Luna, desperately waiting for an operation to save her young son. These are just some of the faces of the ordinary Venezuelans who are struggling to survive.
Cameramen/editors: Omar Quiñonez, Alberto Castro
Producers: Rhonny Zamora, Elianah Jorge
Follow John Holman on Twitter: @mexicorrespond