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Latin America

Hungry in Venezuela: 'We were never rich, but we had food'

Scarcity forces many Venezuelan households to scavenge for food.
15 Feb 2017 – 11:20 AM EST

CARACAS, Venezuela - The crisis has ruined Paula Navas’ Sundays. “That was a special day. I used to serve breakfast with cereal and milk for my daughters, and for lunch there were always two plates: soup and the main meal. Not anymore, now it’s impossible, everything is too expensive,” she confesses, looking sad and weak. Navas, 49, lives in the 5 de Julio sector of the Petare neighborhood, one of the most violent in Venezuela, located in the east side of Caracas. There, she resides with her nine daughters and her sickly 85-year-old dad. The house is half built. She saved a small amount of money to finish the construction but it wasn’t enough. “Nowadays people work more and [the money] covers less.”

“I was humble, not poor, but I feel now that I used to be rich,” she says. In the past, her fridge was full. She ate meat, chicken, lentils, salad and lasagna. There was always juice on the table and cake for dessert. “Instead, now my daughters have nothing to eat, just a little arepa,” she laments, surrounded by four of her girls.

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As she tells of her hardship, Navas’ voice starts shutting down and her shoulders shrink. “Depressing” is the word that often spills out of her lips. She wakes up at dawn to stand in an endless line to buy food and only comes back with four bars of butter and four pounds of yucca. At the market, she has to fight with the “bachaqueros,” entrepreneurs who re-sell basic products at exuberant prices. The mother of nine feels hopeless at the sight of the empty fridge. She does her best to take care of her diabetic daughter, who suffers from seizures, but the girl can’t follow a healthy diet or find the medicine she needs. Navas goes to bed starving. “It’s depressing,” she repeats.

“Now my life is totally different,” Navas says, although she’s aware that her story is not uncommon. “Our neighbors are losing weight just like us. Everyone in the neighborhood is complaining,” she warns. In reality, Petare is a reflection of a national drama. A poll released in August by the firm More Consulting found that 55.8% of Venezuela’s population eats less than three times a day, and 72.1% can’t follow a balanced eating regimen. This latter equals 21 million people.

The survey, which was presented by Miguel Pizarro, the president of the National Assembly’s Commission for Integral Social Development, was conducted between August 8 and 12 and draws from a random sample of 2,000 cases around the country. One of its main findings reveals that 15.7% of the interviewees scavenged for “food residues thrown away by commercial establishments.”

More poverty

There is little official data about the growth of poverty during Nicolas Maduro’s presidency. The National Statistics Institute ( Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas) informed in August that by the end of the first half of 2015, 33.1% of Venezuelan households (2,434,035) were poor and 9.3% (683,370) classified as in “extreme poverty.” In contrast with the same period in 2014, both indicators show an increase of 3.6% and 0.9%, respectively.

The Central Bank of Venezuela ( Banco Central de Venezuela) has stopped regularly publishing the price index and shortages data, even though it’s a constitutional mandate. In its January report this year, the Central Bank pointed out that in 2015 inflation closed at a historic high of 180.9% and shortages were around 87%.

Experts question the government’s transparency and doubt the accuracy of the numbers. In the Living Conditions Survey of 2015 (Encovi), developed by the Central University of Venezuela, the Andres Bello Catholic University and Simon Bolivar University, highlighted last November that 73% of homes and 76% of Venezuelans are living in poverty. That was a continuation of a study published in March, which stated that 12% of Venezuelans don’t have access to 3 meals a day, and those who do “experience diminishing quality in their diets.”

The director of the firm Datanalisis, Luis Vicente Leon, calculates that inflation is currently around 800%. At the same time, the Center for Documentation and Social Analysis of Workers confirms that the basic cost for feeding a family reached 465,034 bolivares in July (about $465 in the black market).

The More Consulting investigation describes a desolate scene: 88.9% of the people surveyed were afraid to run out of food, 53.9% said that they went to bed hungry for lack of food in their homes, and 57.8% said “they’re giving up food to feed their children.”

Meat and Bones

Alvis Pasión, 37 years old, reflects on one of those bleak data points. He’s the father of three school-aged girls in Venezuela. “My wife and I have stopped eating three times a day to let the girls eat,” says Pasión. “Dinner used to be like lunch, but the money doesn’t buy as much anymore.” Yesterday, for instance, in his Petare house they had sardine soup for lunch; nothing else.

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Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro caused a stir on social media last month by mentioning the “Maduro diet” in a public speech. The expression is used by his opponents to denounce the food crisis suffered by Venezuelans. After asking a member of his staff why he was so skinny, Maduro dropped the ironic remark: “The Maduro diet gets you hard without viagra.” Pasión didn’t find that joke funny. “I’ve lost about 44 pounds since december,” he says with indignation. “I weigh 163.”

In order to buy food in the supermarket, two conditions must coincide. First, Pasión has to wait for his turn according to his ID number. That’s a system implemented by the government to regulate the sale of basic products. But next comes the harder part: finding the money to buy food on the day he’s allowed.

Pasión tells stories of looking for food as though he is venturing into the wild jungle to hunt. “Everyday I go out to find food,” he says, for “whatever I can find.” “We used to eat beans, meat, rice, pasta, arepas, and every friday we made burgers for the girls. We weren’t rich, but we ate well. Now we can’t, even though mom and dad work in this household.”

More Consulting found that 52.3% of Venezuelans buy food through “bachaqueros.” Pasión tries to avoid them, although there’s often no other choice. Recently he had to pay 3,000 bolivares for a kilo of rice, which should officially be sold for less than 1,000 bolivares. “For a full chicken and a kilo of rice I have to spend half of my income. How can we live like that?” he asks. Even though the monthly minimum wage was increased by the government (right now it’s 22,576 bolivares), the constantly rising inflation is eating away at the pockets of Venezuelans.

María Piñango has two newborn grandchildren and a new dilemma: Should she spend her money on diapers for the babies or buy food for the adults in the house? She doesn’t hesitate. “The kids are the priority,” says the grandmother. A pack of 20 diapers costs 356 bolivares. At least that was the price the last time they saw diapers on the shelf. The “ bachaqueros” offer them for 5,000 bolivares. In the Piñango household, located in the lower part of the 5 de Julio neighborhood of Petare, has no choice but to endure the hardship.

At 60 years old, Piñango has to wake up at the break of dawn to stand in a long line to get food at the supermarket. “ I leave my house praying because of the immense uncertainty, I do not know what I’m going to find. You could be in a line all morning and by noon they tell you there’s nothing left.” Those days, she looks around as she heads back. “People look sad, depressed” as they go back home empty handed, she says.

Old age doesn’t yield any compassion. “Even if you’re a senior, you have to sleep on the street, and you suffer mistreatment from the police, the national guard and the collectives (Chavez supporters) who impose their own law in the lines. At the end of the day, we eat what we can get, but that affects our health.”

“I was fat,” says Piñango. Now she weighs 127 pounds. The crisis pushed her 30-year-old son to move to the the Venezuelan Andes, hoping to build a better future. Maria houses seven people under her roof, but only two work. “It’s really hard, and every day is harder,” she says.

Even Bartolo, the cat, has to settle for yucca chunks. “I used to buy his cat food, now he just eats the scraps.”