Sunday 24 March 2019

'Food aid is good. But once is not enough', say hungry Venezuelans

Yaneidi Guzman at home in Caracas. Photo: Reuters
Yaneidi Guzman at home in Caracas. Photo: Reuters
Maria Guitia with her son. Photo: Reuters

Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Yaneidi Guzman has lost a third of her weight over the past three years as Venezuela's economic collapse has made food unaffordable.

Her clothes hanging limply off her gaunt frame, the mother of three from Caracas is pinning her hopes for the relief of her suffering on opposition attempts to bring in urgently needed foreign aid.

Millions of others are also suffering the agony of malnutrition.

Almost two-thirds of Venezuelans surveyed in a university study last year said they had lost on average 11kg (24lb) in body weight in 2017.

The once-prosperous South American nation, rich in oil and a member of Opec, has seen its economy halve in size over the last five years under President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuelans' diets have become ever more deficient in vitamins and protein as currency controls restrict food imports and salaries fail to keep pace with annual inflation that is now running at more than two million per cent.

In San Francisco de Yare, a town 70km south of Caracas, Maria Guitia's one-year-old baby's belly is distended and his arms thin.

The pair live with Ms Guitia's five siblings and parents in a one-room tin shed with a dirt floor and no running water.

Growing malnutrition is one of the reasons that Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido has moved ahead with his plans to bring supplies of food and medicine into Venezuela by land and sea today, despite resistance from Mr Maduro.

The president, who denies there is a humanitarian crisis, has said it is a "show" to undermine his grip on power.

Mr Guaido (35) has already been recognised as interim president of Venezuela by more than 50 nations, including the US.

Crowds cheered as he led a convoy of opposition lawmakers out of Caracas on Thursday on an 800km trip to the Colombian border, where they hope to receive food and medicine.

He has not provided details on how they intend to bring in the aid.

In response, Mr Maduro denounced the aid, saying that he was considering closing the border with Colombia and would close the border with Brazil.

Some aid agencies are already on the ground providing what help they can.

Aid has become a proxy war in the battle for Venezuela, after Mr Guaido last month invoked a constitutional provision to assume an interim presidency, saying Mr Maduro's re-election was fraudulent.

"I hope they let the aid in," said Ms Guzman, who cannot make enough money for the supplements and protein-rich diet doctors have prescribed her, despite holding down two jobs.

She and her husband make less than $30 (€26) a month and skimp on eating to keep their children fed.

On the wall of the Guzmans' home in the poor hillside district of Petare hangs a wooden plaque carrying the words of the psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing." Yet the fridge is empty except for a few bags of beans.

The family eat mostly rice, lentils and cassava.

While Ms Guzman would welcome aid, she is concerned a one-off shipment would be a drop in an ocean. "You don't only eat once," she said.

Meanwhile, some political analysts say today's showdown is less about solving the country's needs and more about testing the military's loyalty to Mr Maduro, by daring it to turn the aid away.

Irish Independent

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