There is no shortage of humanitarian disasters right now — Syria, South Sudan, Yemen. But closer to home, a profound and crippling political and economic crisis has been taking hold in what was once the richest country in Latin America, Venezuela.
Right now, more than 8 in 10 Venezuelans live in poverty. The country lacks about 80 percent of basic medical supplies, and items such as antibiotics and insulin are hard to come by. Severe food shortages have left babies severely malnourished, or even dying. Infant mortality soared 30 percent last year, while maternal mortality jumped 66 percent, according to government figures just released. Children have missed school due to hunger. The South American country now has the highest inflation in the world, estimated to hit 1,600 percent this year.
For the past month, Venezuelans have been protesting the status quo in the streets, in almost-daily antigovernment marches and sit-ins. More than 35 people have been killed and hundreds more injured and arrested. The world has been watching, horrified, wondering how this happened in the country with the largest oil reserves in the world.
Speculation on the cause has launched many ideological debates. But what’s not complicated at all is that Venezuelans are suffering and need the help of the international community.
The food shortages are so dire that about three-quarters of Venezuelans lost nearly 20 pounds, on average, last year. It is common to see people in Caracas rummaging through dumpsters for something to eat. Nutritional experts are seeing a concerning rise in the number of emaciated children brought to hospitals, which are also so deeply affected by the shortages that there’s not much they can do to help. It’s an increasingly intractable cycle.
It’s what prompted Ana Isabel Otero to act. About a year ago, a story on the front page of the newspaper her father owns in Venezuela, El Nacional, shocked her to the point of thinking it had to be fake news. “It reported that about 30 newborn babies were not going to be fed in a public hospital because there was no baby formula,” she said in an interview. “At the moment, I thought it couldn't be true. So, I went to see the journalist who wrote the piece and told her, ‘How is this possible?’ She then said, ‘Come with me so you could see for yourself.’ ”
What Otero saw was the opposite of what a hospital needs to be: It was visibly dirty, there was no working air conditioning, and there were no baby-bottle sterilizers. “I could see with my own eyes that the news story was 100 percent true. There was no baby formula because all manufacturers in the country, except for one, had left.”
That was the genesis of her group “Comparte Por Una Vida,” or Share for a Life, a nonprofit that collects baby formula, nutritional supplements for babies, diapers, and other basic goods for infants and ships them to Venezuela for distribution. Donation drives are organized all over the world, including Massachusetts. “A donation of $130 means 233 children eat their full snack for one day in school,” said Otero, adding that kids were fainting in school or stopped attending altogether. “With $20, a baby is fed for four days.”
The logistics of sending aid to Venezuela have been complicated. One major problem has been that the government of President Nicolás Maduro has consistently blocked efforts to officially receive international aid. Tons of food and medicine collected last year stood untouched in warehouses at different cities because of such challenging logistics.
“The federal government doesn’t want to acknowledge there is a humanitarian crisis, so it’s not letting any international aid in through proper channels,” says Cristina Aguilera, a Venezuelan activist and consultant based in Boston. “That’s why we privately ship all collected goods in boxes.”
Additionally, Aguilera said, many in the Venezuelan diaspora organize their own fund-raisers online and partner with organizations in Venezuela to distribute the aid. Every little thing helps, she said. “The baby formula is so critical. We’re talking about a complete generation affected. Babies growing up with a horrible deficit because, simply, there is no milk.”