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Venezuela voices — ‘We are starving here’

Venezuela voices — ‘We are starving here’
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CARACAS, VENEZUELA—Venezuela is on the brink. Grocery shelves lie empty as food becomes increasingly scarce and expensive. People are fleeing the country at record rates, flooding neighboring countries. Inflation is set to reach 10 million percent in 2019.

In this landscape of desperation, public outrage was already coming to a head when last week, Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader and head of the National Assembly, declared himself interim president. The recently re-elected President Nicolás Maduro has vowed to continue on.

People protest while hollding a Venezuelan flag and banners outside Hospital Jm de los Rios during a demonstration against the government of President Nicolás Maduro on January 30, 2019 in Caracas, Venezuela.  (Edilzon Gamez / GETTY IMAGES)

International attention swiftly turned to the two men at the center of the struggle for control of the country. But in the midst of the political push-and-pull, average Venezuelans are still struggling to get by in a country that has grown increasingly violent and where food shortages, electricity cuts and water shortages are the new normal. Deadly crackdowns on dissent are regular.

Anti-government demonstrations are planned for Caracas on Saturday, and with discontent growing, new groups are taking to the streets, including those who were once staunch supporters of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

We asked residents of the city to describe what their living situation is like these days, and if it is a factor driving them to take part in the demonstrations.

“We are starving here.”

Auristela Donawa, 67

The government benefits that Donawa and her family have long relied on — like many of those from poor neighborhoods of Caracas — are no longer enough.

“We are starving here,” she said, describing how she and her son Dixon Bront are struggling to provide for her grandchildren. “He has a 9-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old boy, and he can’t buy anything for them. This is becoming impossible.”

Donawa never voted for Maduro or Chávez, but her son was a supporter of the socialist government.

“I don’t know if he voted for Chávez, but he sympathized with him,” she said.

Bront and Donawa are beneficiaries of several government programs like Misión Vivienda, which provides housing for the poor, and a food distribution program known as “CLAP.”

But Donawa said the government food box is often limited to sugar, pasta and powdered milk.

As benefits have deteriorated, Bront, once a supporter of the government, decided to join the protesters calling for its demise.

Two weeks ago, he was injured during demonstrations — shot in the stomach at close range by security forces — and is now bedridden after two surgeries, putting a further strain on the family.

“I can’t be here in a hospital, sleeping in a chair,” Donawa said from her son’s bedside. “It’s not that I do not agree with him protesting, he is doing it like any other Venezuelan that is unhappy with this communist government.”

Her son has leukemia, but his hospital has no medicine.

Lourdes Cedeño, 41

“It is like the world opens in half and you just want to jump into the crack,” said Cedeño, describing how she felt six years ago when she first found out her son, Miguel, had leukemia.

Things were still manageable then. Her son was moved from a private hospital to the public Central Hospital of Venezuela where he was given medical treatment paid for by the state.

He went into remission for years, but in 2017, Miguel’s cancer returned. That’s when, Cedeño said, everything changed. It was a race against time to get him proper treatment.

“I had to buy everything,” she said. “The chemotherapy, the antibiotics, the needles. But now it’s even worse. I have to buy gloves, cotton, alcohol, water, even the tubes for the lab if I need to ask for a blood test.”

Venezuela’s main hospital has become a symbol of the catastrophic unraveling of the country’s health care system. It is often without running water, medicine and even doctors. The electricity regularly cuts out, which has resulted in patient deaths, opposition politicians say.

Cedeño said she has never been a fan of the protests, but her son has told her he is eager to attend them.

“He said, ‘Mom, I want to go out and make them feel the rage I feel everyday I am at this hospital without any help,’” she said.

“I have faith and hope.”

Sunny Balza, 35

Balza, 35, was a captain in the Venezuelan National Guard and quickly moved up the ranks, gaining the trust of officials who grew to rely on him, including Nicolás Maduro Guerra, Maduro’s son. But he didn’t always support the decisions of his superiors.

“I never agreed with their lines, ever,” he said.

Two years ago, he fled Venezuela for the United States, where he now manages a company. Guaidó, as interim president, has proposed amnesty for members of the armed forces who are willing to break with Maduro’s government, but Barza is unsure whether he will return.

“I worked from the inside against the government,” Barza said, adding that he didn’t necessarily think he needed to ask for amnesty. While he would like to get involved with some of the protests being held in the United States, he doesn’t have time with his busy work schedule. But for the first time in years, he sees a way forward for his country.
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