For Venezuelan seniors, the ‘golden years’ mean picking through garbage for food

Raúl Ammiel, 70, participates in an anti-government demonstration in Caracas, Venezuela, in May. Ammiel is well known in the city for handing out free toys to needy children at Christmas, but now he says it’s seniors who need help.
Raúl Ammiel, 70, participates in an anti-government demonstration in Caracas, Venezuela, in May. Ammiel is well known in the city for handing out free toys to needy children at Christmas, but now he says it’s seniors who need help. Special to the Miami Herald

When Venezuela launched a program in 2011 to extend retirement benefits to all seniors —whether they had paid into the pension system or not — it was praised throughout the region for its generosity. The late President Hugo Chávez hailed the initiative, called the “Mission of Greater Love,” as one of the victories of his 21st century socialism.

Six years later, however, few seniors seem to be feeling that love, as skyrocketing inflation, failing hospitals and the lack of even basic medicine have made them critically vulnerable amid a continuing crisis.

Luis Cano, a 68-year-old advocate for Venezuela’s retirees, says it’s not uncommon to see seniors picking through garbage for food or pleading for money to buy medicine.

“We want to die of old age,” he said. “Instead we’re dying as beggars and from hunger.”

Venezuela is in the midst of national protests that have left more than 40 dead on both sides of the political divide. Since April 1, demonstrators have been demanding new elections, the firing of judges and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

As President Nicolás Maduro has dug in, the nation’s youth have been on the front lines in deadly street battles with police. But seniors are increasingly joining the fray.

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Pio Jiménez, an 85-year-old public accountant, says he’s been at every demonstration in Caracas since the beginning of April.

Walking with other seniors in the march of “los viejitos” earlier this month, Jiménez said he’s forced to work because, despite the laws, he’s been denied a pension. He believes it’s being withheld because he works for an opposition mayor. Even though he makes seven times more than a basic pension, it isn’t enough to support his family.

“It’s hard for us to eat three times a day,” he said. “I have more than enough reasons to protest this government.”

Venezuela is oil rich but poor in everything else, and it imports almost 90 percent of all products. Amid weak crude prices, rampant corruption and general mismanagement, even basic goods are hard to come by. Aspirin, diabetes medication and antibiotics — critical to seniors — are often impossible to find.

Nora Caraballo, 67, said she was hospitalized twice in March for treatable hypertension.

“That month I couldn’t find any of my medicine and it looked grim,” she said. “I’m terrified of dying.”

Isabelle Contreras, 74, said she hadn’t taken her diabetes medicine in four months because she hasn’t been able to find it. She also had an untreated urinary-tract infection for three months due to lack of medicine.

“It’s not just our health. The crisis is also hitting our stomach,” she said. Contreras said that if it wasn’t for the help of her three daughters, she wouldn’t be able to make it.

“We eat very little,” she said. “It’s not like before, because now we struggle to find food.”

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In March, Venezuela’s Pharmaceutical Association, CIFAR, which represents more than 5,000 pharmacies and drugmakers, said suppliers abroad had cut them off because the government had not provided the dollars needed to pay off more than $676 million in debt. Other pharmaceutical organizations say 85 percent of all medicine is either unavailable or in short supply.

U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson of Florida earlier this month introduced legislation that would provide $10 million for medicine and nutritional supplements for Venezuela. But as the administration in Caracas has blocked other humanitarian aid, it’s unclear how the goods would be delivered.

Among the critical issues for seniors is that runaway inflation, which the IMF expects will hit 720 percent this year, has decimated purchasing power.

Last month, Maduro announced a 60 percent increase in pensions to 85,000 bolivares a month, or about $117 at the official rate and $11 dollars at the black market rate that most Venezuelans have access to. But the raise was quickly undermined by an equivalent spike in prices, said Cano, who runs an advocacy group for pensioners and retirees known by its initials, the UFAJUP.

Cano said a family needs at least one million bolivares a month to put food on the table. On Wednesday, for example, Cano said he spent more than a third of his pension on just two items: a kilo of cheese for 10,000 bolivares and some blood pressure medication for 22,500 bolivares.

“Life is unaffordable,” he said. “There are old people who are dying of hunger and hypertension because they can’t afford things. I know it sounds like a movie, but that’s the reality.”

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But at least pensioners living in Venezuela are getting some government money. An estimated 18,000 Venezuelan seniors living abroad, including in South Florida, haven’t received their pensions for more than 18 months, according to Cano’s organization.

Maduro blames the financial squeeze on a “economic war” being waged by the opposition and shadowy foreign forces. Earlier this week, Maduro extended an economic emergency decree for the seventh time, giving him sweeping powers over the economy.

But Cano and others said the only way for the country to emerge from the crisis is for Maduro to step aside, not take more control.

For the last four decades, Raúl Ammiel, 70, has become something of a local hero for dressing up as Santa Claus during Christmas and handing out gifts to needy children. Now he says it’s the seniors who need help.

“It’s not right that I have to depend on my children to make it alive to the end of each month,” he said during a recent march, wearing his signature Santa hat. “This government has destroyed everyone’s quality of life. That’s why I’m in the streets and will stay in the streets.”

Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss