Malnourished children who faint in class. Children who, in the worst cases, die from hunger, their bodies nothing but skin and bones, the outlines of their ribs visible.
Images like those have become common in Venezuela, where critical food shortages are pushing hundreds of thousands of children under a blanket of misery and hunger more often seen in the poorest countries in Africa.
“We are seeing cases not seen for 40 years,” said William Barrientos, a physician and part of the opposition bloc in the legislative National Assembly who produced and posted a video on YouTube to highlight the issue of malnutrition among Venezuelan children.
“We are seeing cases of marasmus, an extremely grave type of malnutrition. Hospitals are seeing children who seek help, with swollen heads, their skin stuck to their bones and their bellies swollen,” he told el Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview.
Barrientos, who is vice president of the Assembly’s Health Committee, added that about 20 percent of Venezuelan children face problems of malnutrition, and that the number of children admitted to hospitals for severe malnutrition has spiked.
A survey carried out by the committee concluded that nine out of every 10 Venezuelan homes lack the resources to maintain a balanced diet as the country sinks into hyperinflation. The latest official data shows the basic food basket per month for a family of five costs about 226,000 bolivares (about $226), while the minimum monthly salary stands at about 15,000 bolivares ($15).
That means that Venezuelans are going hungry, even though they live in a country with one of the largest oil reserves in the world.
“Seventy-five percent of Venezuela’s population is eating only two times or less per day,” Barrientos said.
Experts say the Venezuelan economy began imploding three years ago, with the collapse of the late President Hugo Chávez’s populist model, which asphyxiated domestic production by tightening controls on the private sector while stocking shelves with imported goods.
But the crisis turned into desperation starting last year, when a plunge in the price of oil slashed the income needed to continue importing the $500 million a month in food that the country requires. The Venezuelan population is now suffering through a level of misery unknown to many generations.
Venezuela is starting to show signs of the kind of poverty we see in other continents
Antonio de la Cruz, Inter American Trends
“Venezuela is starting to show signs of the kind of poverty we see in other continents,” said Antonio de la Cruz, executive director of Inter American Trends, a Washington, D.C., firm. “And the crisis is hitting harder in the most vulnerable sector: the children.”
The high levels of malnutrition are also seen in schools, Assembly member Karin Salanova said in an interview with the newspaper Panorama.
“We have children who are fainting in schools,” she said. “Hunger has entered the classrooms. There are children dying from malnutrition.”
The refusal by the government of President Nicolás Maduro to release data on the economy and public-health systems makes it difficult to use figures to illustrate the scale of the problem.
But Barrientos emphasized that Venezuelan doctors are starting to see health problems not seen in the country for more than four decades.
Malnutrition and poverty are even more widespread in rural areas, where entire towns lack food products, he added.
“In rural areas, far from urban areas, there are images that we usually see only on Discovery Channel documentaries or photos published in National Geographic,” Barrientos said.
The food shortages add to the problems created by a medicine shortage, which already has caused deaths around the country and created a series of complications for the public-health system.
Venezuela lacks 85 percent of the medicines it needs, leaving many children vulnerable to diseases, like malaria and mange, that were eradicated many years ago and making it difficult to control others like dengue fever.
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM