Miguel González, a 10-year old indigenous boy, walks barefoot through the crowded corridors of Maracaibo’s flea market in northwestern Venezuela. He holds a little plastic bag filled with a few pounds of beef skin while a nauseating smell of kept-in-the-open fish, meat and cheese fills the air below a rusty metallic ceiling.
“Please, give me some bones,” he asks, both hands extended to a woman selling meat, who refuses to hand him the leftovers and demands that he leave the premises.
Hunger triggers Miguel’s daily trips to beg for any food or money he can carry home to Carrasquero, a poor town located in the indigenous Wayuu district next to the Colombian border.
“I ask and ask until someone gives me something to prepare a soup at least. We have no food at all at home,” the child tells a reporter. His clothes are torn. His face, hair and feet are stained.
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Miguel especially likes Chinese rice that he and his 3-year-old brother sometimes get from charitable customers at a nearby food fair. His dad, Manuel, suffers from bone cancer and can’t walk at all. His older brothers work at constructions sites.
He is one of an unknown number of youngsters who work, sleep, beg for money or food on the streets of Venezuela, where inflation has skyrocketed, forcing waves of people across the border to Colombia and to other countries.
Miguel has not yet learned to read or write. He wants to become a detective when he grows older. “I wander around these places every day with no fear at all,” he said proudly.
Fully 87 percent of the country is experiencing poverty, according to the most recent National Survey of Life Conditions for Venezuelan Population — known as Encovi — which is led by experts from three major universities.
Almost 90 percent of Venezuelans polled consider their income insufficient to buy food and 61 percent admitted they have gone to bed at night feeling hungry.
Miguel was just a newborn when Hugo Chávez, the late socialist president of Venezuela, proclaimed in 2008 that there was not a single poor working kid on the streets.
Chávez made the bold promise to solve the problem on the night he won his first election in 1998: “I shall not allow a single street kid in Venezuela or I shall stop calling myself Hugo Chávez.”
There’s no official data today on how many children live or work on the streets of Venezuela, but in the first year of Chavez’s term, he calculated that there were 8,000 street kids registered with government institutions. He funded social programs — largely with oil revenue — to help poor youngsters succeed through sport and school programs. He announced victory 10 years later.
“You don’t see street kids anymore. And whoever sees one, come on, he is like a son, because we now have thousands of them studying, who were abandoned before,” he said in a 2009 speech.
Willing to work or steal
Karen Rosa’s scars become noticeable below her red tank top as she offers garbage bags for sale in the middle of the morning in Maracaibo’s downtown. She has burn marks on both her arms, her chest and face.
“It was an accident. My brother threw gasoline over me at home because we were playing and he lit a match,” the 11-year indigenous girl explained.
The accident happened two years ago. Now she’s on the streets working. “It doesn’t hurt anymore,” she said.
She made enough money that day to buy half of a kilo of rice for her family, who live outside a city called San Juan, two hours away by bus.
Oscar Misle, a teacher and member of Cecodap, a child advocacy group in Venezuela, calculates that at least three million Venezuelan kids don’t go to school as often as they should — often winding up on the street.
“These kids see the street as a possibility of survival, of finding what they can’t find at home,” he said from his office in Caracas.
But he warns that street kids are willing to steal in order to get what their families need. He calls it “a strategy of survival.”
A dozen of children surround Karen as she talks to a reporter. They’ve all skipped school and wear worn-out clothes.
Abraham Puchaina, 10, who also sells garbage bags, skips school almost every day. “I just study sometimes,” he said.
Yusbeily García, a shy 12-year-old, said her mother just had a baby and can’t work at all. “I have to do it for her every day,” she said.
Chávez’s promise has become “unaffordable,” according to Osiris Morales Rojas, a professor at the University of Zulia and a licensed social worker.
“Street kids’ reality has worsened instead of getting better in Venezuela,” she said, adding that the problem isn’t getting much attention any more. “It stopped being a matter of importance around 2008.”
Morales Rojas emphasized that the institutions that once helped poor Venezuelans were dismantled or changed their objectives. Street kids, she said, frequently come from impoverished and violent families, where parents force them to work or beg.
“They become suppliers to their homes,” she said. “Their mothers often have several children from different fathers. On the street, they suffer all kinds of work and sexual abuses. They get skin diseases. They are exposed to drug and alcohol consumption.”
Mariela Gómez, 21, has been a street kid all her life. Her mother abandoned her in Cabimas, a rich-in-oil city near Maracaibos Lake. She has five children of her own now, ranging in age from 6 years to three months, and she is teaching them to beg on the streets as she does.
On a recent day, Marifer, her youngest daughter, cried in front of a bakery shop because she had only drunk a small container of orange juice since the previous night. “I am hungry!” she screamed, as María Fernanda, her 6-year-old sister, stared at her. Marifer began asking passers-by for food or water.
Fernando, Gomez’s second youngest son, was a few blocks away begging for money as he was carried by one of her “street friends.” He has been diagnosed with polio and can’t walk. His two knees are covered with sores.
Doctors have told her she would need close to two million bolívares for an operation to help him. “Where am I going to find that?” Gomez asked.
But the worst part of living on the street came in December, she said. She went to sleep on a Maracaibo sidewalk one night and she woke up at dawn shocked: Marisol, one of her twin babies, was missing. Someone had stolen her.
“She was gone! I called the police and they could not find her anywhere. I started to cry and cry for days,” Gomez said. The little girl, born and raised on Venezuela’s streets, has not been found.