The Hungry Generation

Malnutrition curses the children of Venezuela

The Hungry Generation

Malnutrition curses the children of Venezuela

'MY STOMACH BURNS': Yinmari Colmenares, eating at her home in the western Venezuelan state of Lara, is underweight for her age, doctors told her mother, Dulce Colmenares. "Mamá, I'm hungry," the 9-year-old tells Colmenares. "My stomach burns."

The Hungry Generation

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Filed

A generation of children is growing up hungry and stunted in Venezuela, where the economic crisis and a lack of public resources have led to widespread shortages of food and a public health system unable to care for the malnourished. 

Filed: December 18, 2019, 7 p.m. GMT







Last August, Francys Rivero, an unemployed single mother of four, feared for her baby’s life. Two months after his birth, even though she was breastfeeding him regularly, Kenai de Jesús wasn’t gaining weight.

“I feel like my heart is breaking,” Rivero, 32, told Reuters in an interview here in the capital of the western Venezuelan state of Lara. “I don’t know what’s wrong with my son.”

She tried repeatedly to see nutritionists, but failed. One didn’t show up, another required a month-long wait. Desperate, Rivero attended a charity event offering checkups and information for families of children with nutritional problems.

At the event, organized by Caritas, the Catholic aid organization, doctors performed a check-up. With donations from the charity, and financial assistance from siblings now living abroad, Rivero began supplementing her breast milk with baby formula.

Within weeks, Kenai rebounded. By December, he reached an acceptable weight for his age. But Rivero, like many enduring a recession now in its sixth year, fears she could once again find herself short of the money needed to keep him healthy.

“How am I going to afford such expensive food?” she asks.

Venezuela’s economic crisis is taking a crippling toll on the country’s children, who face a growing risk of malnutrition as basic food is increasingly out of reach for many families. The public health system, notoriously short of medicine and other standard supplies, is unable to provide much succor, and aid groups struggle to bridge the gap.

President Nicolás Maduro, increasingly a global pariah for undermining democracy and overseeing the country’s economic collapse, blames the crisis and food shortages on U.S. sanctions meant to force him from power. The leader, also accused of overseeing widespread human-rights abuses and turning a blind eye to suffering across the once-prosperous country, often says foreign media and global aid organizations exaggerate Venezuela’s problems.

“We’re going to see a regression in the development of the country because human resources are diminished.”

Raquel Mendoza, nutritionist at Mapani, a Venezuelan aid group

A lack of proper nutrition is stunting growth, diminishing cognitive development and causing physical and emotional trauma among hundreds of thousands of young Venezuelans. As a result, doctors and other health experts argue, Venezuela faces a generation of young people who will never meet their full physical or mental potential.

Between 2013 and 2018, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, 13% of the country’s children suffered from malnutrition. Caritas, in a recent study conducted in five Venezuelan states and the capital, Caracas, found that 16% of children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition and that nearly twice as many suffer from low growth rates for their age.

Although the United Nations and other agencies import some food and nutritional aid, it isn’t enough for Venezuela’s needs and the assistance doesn’t always get where it is most required. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has raised just a third of the $222.7 million it sought for Venezuela for the second half of 2019, according to official U.N. data.

“A population suffering from malnutrition implies we are going to have adults with less physical and intellectual potential,” said Raquel Mendoza, a nutritionist at Mapani, an aid group in Barquisimeto that helps poor families diagnose and treat malnourished children. “We’re going to see a regression in the development of the country because human resources are diminished.”

Venezuela’s Information Ministry, responsible for government communications including those of the Health Ministry, didn’t respond to requests for comment. The ministry’s 2016 annual report, the last one it published, celebrated advances in nutrition since the 1980s and said child malnutrition “has stopped being a public health problem.”


















Desperate

Francys Rivero, a 32-year old single mother of four kids in Barquisimeto, last August needed help because Kenai, her two-month-old son, wasn’t gaining weight. She sought appointments with nutritionists in Venezuela’s public health system, she said, but was unable to see a doctor. 

Charity

Caritas, the Catholic aid organization, in August held a seminar for families seeking assistance because of hunger and nutritional problems in the Venezuelan state of Lara. Rivero, in black with her underweight son Kenai, there received information and a check-up that helped the young boy recover.

Better, with help

Kenai, formerly an underweight baby, by December weighed enough to be considered on track again for healthy growth. With help from charity and financial assistance from family living abroad, his mother, Rivero, supplemented her breast milk with baby formula. Rivero nonetheless worries she could once again find herself unable to provide for Kenai and his siblings.

Bare tables

Families in poor neighborhoods across Venezuela, like this barrio outside Barquisimeto, can’t afford enough food or the right types. About 13% of the country’s children have suffered from malnutrition in recent years, according to the United Nations.  

Community effort

Cooks recently prepared meals for hungry families at a Caritas event in Barquisimeto. Many poor residents there and across Venezuela say they don’t get enough to eat. Doctors and other health specialists say malnourishment, especially among children, is going to hinder future development in the country.

Little to eat

Peas soak in a plastic container outside the Barquisimeto home of Blanca Naveda, a 40-year-old mother of three. “Sometimes we’ve gone up to two days without eating,” she told Reuters. “One day we only had one plantain and we had to share it.” 

Tough times

Carlos Flores, 15, weighs less than he should for his stature, according to Naveda, his mother. The family still decorates its threadbare home with images of the late Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, but says it has found it hard to survive amid Venezuela’s economic collapse.

Not enough

Rosa Rojas, here with her 6-year-old son José María Figueroa, struggles to afford food after her husband died last year. The unemployed 32-year-old has six children, four of whom live with her. “I haven’t been able to give them as much as I would like,” Rojas says. “It’s very hard.”

At play

Doctors diagnosed Josá María and Rosibel, his 4-year-old sister, as malnourished. Their mother, Rojas, feeds them mostly carbohydrates. “Today I gave them rice with a little sugar,” she said in August. 

Uncertain future

José María lives with his mother and siblings in a shack, with no running water, in Barquisimeto, the capital of the western state of Lara. His mother, Rojas, said she can’t afford to feed the family three times a day. “We just eat twice,” she said.  

Back from the hospital

Pastor and Josué Suárez, 3- and 4-year-old brothers here playing with water, were both hospitalized for malnutrition recently. Their mother, 23-year-old Gregoria Hernández, said she seeks to make sure they don’t go to bed without eating, but adds: “When I have food for the night, I don’t have anything to give them in the day.”

Time and again

After her boys, Pastor and Josué, recovered, Hernández’s 7-month-old daughter, Sonia, began to show signs of malnutrition. Doctors treated the girl for diarrhea and rehydrated her intravenously. “I feel like the worst of mothers,” said Hernández. “I don’t have a way to help them, to give them what they need.”

Food or medicine

Deina Álvarez, 6, is a good student and aspiring gymnast. But she is underweight and receiving nutritional supplements from a local charity. Her parents, who are epileptic, can afford rice and beans but little other food because they also have to pay for medicines. "Either we pay for medicine or we pay for food," said Diana Rodríguez, Deina’s mother.

Seeking help

Johanna Mendoza, 36, visited a public hospital repeatedly after her 18-month-old daughter, Johanny Marchán, began losing weight. Doctors, she said, told her the girl had an infection. When the infection didn’t pass, Mendoza sought help from a local charity. A physician there told her Johanny was malnourished. “If she doesn’t receive treatment in time,” the doctor told Mendoza, “she could die.”

Migrating

Adelaida Márquez, 25, traveled from the Caribbean coast to Barquisimeto, where family told her a local charity could help Javier Liendo, her 15-month-old son. The family could no longer afford to buy much food and the boy was diagnosed as malnourished. “With the current situation,” she says of Venezuela’s economic crisis, “we can barely eat.”

Still recovering

With nutritional supplements provided by a local foundation, Javier has been gaining weight. Aid organizations, including the United Nations, help in some corners of Venezuela by providing supplements, medicines and other staples that are no longer easy to find in the public health system. 


The Hungry Generation

Feature photography: Carlos García Rawlins

Text by Brian Ellsworth and Keren Torres

Additional reporting by Luc Cohen in Caracas

Photo editing: Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson

Design: Pete Hausler and Troy Dunkley

Edited by Paulo Prada