World·CBC IN VENEZUELA

'We survive thanks to the mercy of God': Inside a Venezuelan hospital during the food crisis

There have been more than 3,000 protests in Venezuela so far this year, and the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict says more than a quarter of them had to do with the food crisis. The fed-up and hungry crowds have a simple message: "We want food!" Ana Vanessa Herrero checks out the impact inside a major hospital in the capital.

Portions have been cut in half and few seem to have anything kind to say about the half they still get

Margelys Cardona, 28, eats a cracker in her room at the University Hospital in Caracas. (Ana Vanessa Herrero/CBC News)

Margelys Cardona sits in her hospital bed in Caracas, Venezuela, eating a cracker slowly, surrounded by flies and cockroaches as she thinks of happier times when she wasn't starving and in desperate need of a kidney transplant.

She's pale and looks at the bowl of yellow water that the University Hospital calls soup. She's saving it for her husband, who's off on a hopeless search for protein shakes in a country without many of the most basic foodstuffs.

"This is what he eats," she says of the soup. "We have to share the food."

Cardona, 28, has kidney failure and needs dialysis every two days.

"We survive thanks to the mercy of God," she says. "Family and friends that know of our situation help us with some money because we cannot work."

Venezuela is a country of shortages: water, electricity, medicine, baby formula, toilet paper, car parts, you name it. The devastating food shortage has highlighted the depth of the country's recession, which was triggered by the global collapse of oil prices that began in 2014 and made worse, many experts argue, by the government's socialist economic policies.

There's been violent looting and massive lines in front of state-run supermarkets where people wait hours but often leave empty-handed. There was even a packed procession across an international bridge last Saturday as more than 35,000 Venezuelans walked to Cucuta, Colombia, to buy food during a 12-hour opening of the border.

There have been more than 3,000 protests in the country so far this year, and the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict says more than a quarter of them had to do with the food crisis.

The fed-up and hungry crowds have a simple message: "We want food!"
A man shouts during a protest over food shortages in Caracas on June 14. (Reuters)

The shortage has affected everyone: the rich, the poor and even the sick and injured in hospitals.

At the University Hospital in Caracas, a piece of mortadella and oatmeal water pass for a well-balanced breakfast these days.

A piece of bread with some cheese is another menu staple.

'I don't eat this'

In the past, patients were fed six times a day, now they receive three underwhelming servings a day. Their daily intake has been cut in half – and few seem to have anything kind to say about the half they still get.

Yorkys Villegas, a 46-year-old hospital worker, says the situation is heartbreaking.

"I don't eat this," she says of the yellow soup she was serving to the patients.
'I don't eat this,' hospital worker Yorkys Villegas said of the yellow soup she served to patients. (Ana Vanessa Herrero/CBC News)

Riots, looting and protests raise immediate public safety concerns, but the harmful effects of a sustained food and medicine shortage could be long-lasting, nutritionist Dr. Pablo Hernandez says.

"We will have a generation of sick people," says the professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "We are getting sicker, not only physically, but mentally also."

If the crisis were to continue for years, he says Venezuela could see a generation of kids with shorter life expectancies than their parents because of "the poor environment they are growing up in."

'Working blindly'

Those who defend the government often point out the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recognized Venezuela in 2013 for "meeting the UN millennium goal of halving malnutrition." But Hernandez says that recognition and the numbers behind it were several years out of date.

"We have no official numbers right now; we are working blindly."
A police officer carries a woman who fainted while waiting to try to buy pasta outside a supermarket in Caracas. (Reuters)

He says a proper diet is particularly important for people suffering from chronic medical conditions.

"They have to consume even more calories than people that are not sick, due to the stress of being hospitalized."

But at this major hospital in the country's capital, portions have been cut and patients receive the same limited variety of meals, regardless if their condition requires they eat or avoid certain foods.

Protein is rare and when it does appear on the tray, patients say it's hardly a treat.

"It's impossible to eat," says Marvel Soto, 64, from the bedside of her husband, José Ollarte, who's spent the past 2 ½ months in bed with a broken back.

Noticeable effects

The meat "doesn't taste well," he says, "I rather not eat."

In April, doctors sounded the alarm about a critical shortage of baby formula, particularly at J.M. De los Ríos children's hospital in Caracas, where the supply ran out, leaving it to parents to try to track some down. The crisis lasted for about a month before donations started to help fill the gap. 

Doctors like Pablo Hernandez say they've already noticed the effects of malnutrition throughout Venezuelan society.

"We will find kids with problems at school, and workers absent from their jobs for the lack of iron in [their] diet. We don´t know how many cases of anemia we are dealing with.

"Food rich in iron are either too expensive or too hard to find."

About the Author

Ana Vanessa Herrero is an award-winning photographer and freelance writer based in Caracas, Venezuela.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press

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