Caracas, VENEZUELA – Six months ago, Marta’s husband quit his job as a laborer in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. Rampant inflation meant his salary was no longer enough to afford even basic items. Meanwhile, the biweekly food subsidies the family had been receiving from the government were becoming more and more erratic.
Now, with her 18-month-old child strapped to her back, Marta spends much of her day checking dumpsters for food. “People see me with the baby and sometimes they give me milk or something to eat,” said Marta, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy. “Otherwise we could not buy it because in the supermarkets, it is too expensive.”
Stories like Marta’s are becoming more common across Venezuela, according to independent experts monitoring the situation. A local Catholic relief agency, the Caritas Foundation, estimates there could be as many as 280,000 malnutrition-related deaths this year among children.
This is one of the results of Venezuela’s economic collapse over the past five years. An economy almost wholly dependent on oil sales was unable to recover when global crude prices dropped, forcing the government to take on massive debt and spurring runaway inflation. The national assembly estimates that prices in the country jumped 2,616 percent last year.
Now basic government services have all but ground to a halt. That includes public medical care and also the food subsidy programs that Marta and her family had come to rely on – creating a nutrition emergency in the midst of the country’s broader economic crisis.
Former President Hugo Chavez made the elimination of hunger a key point of his presidency. During his time in power, which ended with his death in 2013, various plans were created to improve food access for the poor. Among them was the distribution of goods at a subsidized price in stores and markets throughout the country. The government also began to regulate the price of food and items that where considered fundamental.
With these initiatives, the Chavez government dramatically reduced the country’s malnutrition rates. The prevalence of undernourishment among Venezuelans went from 16.9 percent in 2002, according to the World Bank, to 3.1 percent by 2010. Stunting in children under 5 years old dropped from a 16 percent prevalence in 2005 to 13 percent by 2009.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) praised Chavez’s government for its efforts to fight hunger. At an awards ceremony in 2015, the agency honored the country for meeting its target under the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
The FAO has now swung from awards to alarm. In a 2017 report on the state of global food crises, the agency highlighted Venezuela as a situation it was watching. “The worsening economic situation in Venezuela may cause a severe shortage of consumer goods, including food and medicine,” the agency wrote. That is what appears to be happening.
Chavez’s programs were largely supported by revenue from the oil sales. As oil prices began to tumble in the mid-2010s, so did Venezuela’s economy under his successor President Nicolas Maduro. And inflation ramped up. The cost of a carton of eggs is now the same as a month’s salary at the country’s minimum wage.
In the midst of the rising costs, the programs introduced under the Chavez government to provide people with affordable food have slowly eroded or disappeared completely, even as the government maintains there is no problem. In their place, Maduro’s administration has introduced a new program to distribute food, channeling it through local supply and production committees, known as CLAPs.
For people to qualify, they must register through neighborhood councils that are controlled by Maduro’s party. People who are unwilling to register through these groups are denied access to the food baskets. Those who do receive it complain that it is too little and that they can’t even be sure when or if it will arrive.
Meanwhile, Maduro has blocked international aid from entering the country, calling it an interventionist measure, and people are running out of coping strategies.
“Hyperinflation and skyrocketing prices mean many families cannot afford basic food staples, while in some areas, there is limited availability,” Christopher Tady, a spokesperson with the United Nations Children’s Fund, told News Deeply. “There is a lack of political agreement and dialogue to solve the most urgent issues.”
With no clear end to the economic crisis, experts warn that already alarming malnutrition rates will continue to climb.
Even as the government tries to keep the situation secret, information is leaking out about the rising rates of deaths linked to malnutrition – particularly among children.
The Caritas Foundation has monitored food security in 44 parishes across the country’s 10 poorest states since 2016. Officials report five children die every week, their deaths linked to severe acute malnutrition (SAM). And Caritas has found SAM rates for children under 5 years old in the communities it monitors have climbed from 8 percent in 2016 to 16 percent in 2017.
“This is telling us that there’s an extremely fast escalation of severe infant acute malnutrition,“ Susana Raffalli, who is in charge of Caritas’ monitoring, told News Deeply. The World Health Organization “states that 5 percent of children with this [level of] malnutrition is alarming, 10 percent a crisis and 15 percent an emergency. For this reason, we insist that there is a humanitarian emergency here.
The situation is not just affecting children. An analysis by the Bengoa Foundation for Food and Nutrition found that 75 percent of the population lost 8.7kg (19lb) of weight in an uncontrolled way in 2017.
The health sector, equally affected by the economic crisis, lacks the resources to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis, Raffalli said. “Public hospitals don’t have the necessary medication and nutritional supplements to treat malnourished patients, so recovery protocols can’t be followed.”
With international actors blocked from the country, agencies are trying to provide whatever relief they can. They are attempting to get nutrition supplements to children under five who are at risk of malnutrition and to encourage breastfeeding so parents don’t spend what money they have on expensive milk substitutes.
Raffalli said Venezuela is now at a point where even the return of subsidized food would probably not be enough. “We need to strengthen the therapeutic services to be able to save children dying from malnutrition.”