Venezuela's Starvation Crisis Is a Permanent Brain Drain

Venezuela's Starvation Crisis Is a Permanent Brain Drain

Mothers and their children eat lunch prepared by "Luz de rescate" NGO in a community kitchen of Petare, on April 16, 2019, in Caracas, Venezuela.

SourceEva Marie Uzcategui/Getty

Why you should care

Widespread hunger is threatening to hobble the nation for decades — whoever rules it. 

The graffiti scrawled across a wall in Caracas is short but heartfelt. “Tengo hambre,” it reads: “I am hungry.”

It is a cry increasingly heard across Venezuela. As Socialist President Nicolás Maduro and Western-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó battle for the country’s future amid an economic collapse that has sparked severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine, millions of people are going hungry for extended periods and risking long-term damage to their health, humanitarian organizations have warned. The Trump administration’s decision earlier this month to impose a near total economic embargo on the country is likely to make the crisis worse, according to Latin American civil society groups.

“Six to eight million people are living in a state of undernourishment,” says Susana Raffalli, a veteran Venezuelan humanitarian adviser who has worked across the world with the Red Cross and UNICEF, the UN agency for children. “That means the state cannot guarantee they have an adequate supply of food.”

Raffalli’s assessment is supported by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. José Graziano da Silva, outgoing head of the FAO, said in a press interview last month that there had been a “dizzying increase” in hunger in Venezuela in recent years. In a recent report on global food security, the FAO estimates that between 2016 and 2018, about 21.2 percent of the Venezuelan population was undernourished. When Maduro came to power in 2013, the figure was 6.4 percent. In a June report, UNICEF estimated that 3.2 million children in Venezuela were “in need of assistance.”

Now it is a question of how to look after people who will remain zombies for 30 years.

A Venezuelan businessman who requested anonymity

Maduro blames a U.S.-orchestrated economic war for the problems with food supplies. The U.S. has imposed an increasing array of sanctions on Venezuela in an effort to force the president from office. The White House and Venezuelan opposition say the principal culprit is an economy ruined by years of mismanagement whose collapse began years before the first significant U.S. sanctions in 2017.

In a statement, the U.S. State Department described Venezuela as “one of the worst man-made humanitarian disasters in the modern world.” Millions of poorer Venezuelans rely on monthly deliveries of government-subsidized food boxes for survival, a system critics denounce as a form of social control, alleging supplies are skewed toward supporters of the government. Delivery has become increasingly erratic, and the contents of the boxes are of variable quality, say aid workers.

Washington has meanwhile accused the Maduro government of skimming off hundreds of millions of dollars from the food program and last month imposed sanctions on Maduro’s three stepsons over their alleged roles. Maduro has repeatedly denied there is widespread hunger in his country. He told the BBC earlier this year, “Venezuela has the highest levels of nutrients, has extremely high levels of access to food, and that stereotype, that stigma [of hunger] that they have tried to put on us, has only one objective: to present a humanitarian crisis that does not exist.” But hunger is one of the main reasons for the mass exodus from the country in recent years, according to diplomats and aid workers. More than four million Venezuelans have fled abroad, and for those who remain, the food situation is increasingly perilous.

One businessman with knowledge of the food situation in Venezuela, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, says data show a large proportion of Venezuelans are living on between 1,500 and 1,900 calories a day. Although calorie requirements are not an exact science, nutritionists widely agree that an average physically active adult needs about 2,300 a day to remain healthy. “This is no academic discussion,” says the businessman. “In this country, there is a lot of hunger.”

Malnutrition is particularly acute in the provinces, say aid workers. Northwestern Zulia state, on the border with Colombia, is one of the worst-hit areas. In a survey late last year, the Commission for Human Rights in the State of Zulia (CODHEZ), a local NGO, found that three-quarters of households in the state capital, Maracaibo, were suffering from hunger. Eight in 10 people said they could no longer afford protein such as chicken and beef and survived largely on arepas — traditional corn-flour patties — margarine, pasta and rice.

Since then, the situation has worsened as wages have failed to keep pace with galloping inflation. “The price of food went up 8,165 percent between last October and this June,” says Juan Berríos, a researcher at CODHEZ. Nine months ago, the monthly minimum wage bought 24 kilograms of corn flour, but now it buys less than 4 kilograms. Venezuela will face long-term consequences from chronic undernourishment, especially of children, humanitarian organizations warn.

NGO data show the weight and height of Venezuelan children have fallen significantly below the average for comparable populations. “This is bound to have health consequences,” says Berríos. “This is already a region in which consumption of carbohydrates and fat is high and illnesses like hypertension and diabetes are common. It is only likely to get worse. If during your childhood you’re eating only rice, pasta, with very few fresh vegetables and fruit, what can you hope for?”

The businessman with knowledge of the food industry says he fears that, as a result of the crisis, “several million people will suffer irreversible physical damage and will need to be looked after for the rest of their lives.” It is already too late to prevent a catastrophe, he says.

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By Michael Stott and Gideon Long

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