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Interview: How Bad Has Venezuela’s Malnutrition Problem Really Gotten?

By: Pedro García Otero - Feb 8, 2017, 9:56 am
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Less than 100 yards away from the Venezuelan Chancellery and less than 300 from the Presidential Palace, three minors fight over leftover food. (Taringa)

EspañolEighteen years after Chavez came to power, the food crisis in Venezuela is disastrous.

At least 300 thousand Venezuelans, according to the Catholic University Andrés Bello, eat garbage. Malnutrition in the poorest communities reaches humanitarian crisis levels, and there are almost daily complaints of people dying in hospitals from malnutrition.

For 17 years, Fundación Bengoa has been investigating nutrition in Venezuela and Coordinator Maritza Landaeta spoke to PanAm Post about the current state of the country’s problems with food. Landaeta said Venezuela’s food crisis should be constituted as a crime against humanity, one that has already compromised the country’s future.

Venezuela’s National Assembly is discussing the country’s nutrition situation. As an expert on the subject, what would you want to tell them?

Venezuelan’s food and nutritional situation is deteriorating. It is not a new phenomenon: alarms have been running since 2012, when a fall in the consumption of basic foods, such as animal protein, especially milk, was beginning to show. By 2013, access to food led to widespread malnutrition problems, and cases of severe malnutrition began to be recorded by hospitals.

At the moment we are in a situation where, as Caritas said, there are some states in a true crisis situation because of the percentage of children with moderate and severe malnutrition that we are seeing in communities. Children under five are suffering the worst, because it is precisely that age bracket in which infant mortality is concentrated. These malnourished children are more prone to infections and diarrhea, which may be a minor illness for a nurtured child but is a serious case for a malnourished child.

But they are not the only ones, we are already seeing that the emergencies in hospitals are also taking place in schools. Children over seven years of age already have severe cases of malnutrition. Some arrive edematous, others arrive with practically all the fat and all the muscle of their bodies depleted.

What can we expect from those children who are suffering from this degree of malnutrition? In some communities, 10 percent of the total population is already suffering from moderate and severe malnutrition. What we are seeing is something unprecedented in Venezuela, we have not seen such severe cases, and what we see here is the despair of their mothers. We have seen something very significant, that there are already signs of malnutrition in children under six months. That is very serious, because it indicates that there isn’t adequate breastfeeding, because many of these mothers are adolescents and in many cases they leave the child with their moms to stand in line to buy other food, and then they do not receive adequate breastfeeding.

Landaeta señala que la situación de nutrición en Venezuela no tiene precedentes en su historia. (El Impulso)
Landaeta said Venezuela’s undernourished population is affecting the country’s future. (El Impulso)

This situation is of significant concern, as pregnant women are also suffering from malnutrition, and add that 25 percent of the pregnancies in the country are teenage mothers, who also have to eat to grow. These mothers are anemic, have deficiencies in folic acid, and their these children are born with the Sword of Damocles, having low birth weight. At the same time they have neither iron reserves nor the folic acid reserves they need, and therefore there are increasing cases of children with neural tube problems, spina bifida, tumors related to folic acid deficiency.

 

Let’s talk about this generation of Venezuelan children as was once spoke of the children of Thalidomida, or of the Spanish postwar period. Is that a fair comparison?

I personally believe that these children will grow up with some damage to their cognitive development and to their capacity for complete human development, especially those who have suffered very early malnutrition, because it has been demonstrated that early malnutrition causes this type of damage.

We will have to prepare to have special schools, special education for these children, who will need more stimulation, stimulation that they do not have in their homes, because in many of them, these children do not receive the stimuli that they require.

We have been warning for years that children were going to schools not to receive an education, but to eat. 

It’s not the older kids that faint, it’s the younger ones. If you visit a school, you can see how children barely move during recess. They do not move because they do not have calories. How are they going to move if they have no energy?

What is the response of the Venezuelan State to this situation? The School Food Program has disappeared from schools, many students have claimed.

The answer to that is the same as everything else that happens in the country: absolute silence. The necessary measures are not taken. For example, the Local Committees on Supply and Production (CLAP) program, should prioritize the feeding of children, pregnant women and the elderly, but it doesn’t.

I have commented many times that I would have focused CLAP on mother-child centers; that allows you to control healthy children, give them their vaccines and give them their food. That guarantees their food and their immediate family’s food, because any food program has to project that the food given to the child is also what its family has to eat. You could care for the elderly and the pregnant woman. You could provide health protection and some food that allows them to feed themselves for a reasonable amount of time.

But unfortunately, as children are a priority for political discourse, but not for action, we are seeing these very serious outcomes. Even in the worst wars and in the worst places, states prioritize the feeding of children. And this is not the case in Venezuela.

 

The Venezuelan Federation of Farmers, Fedeagro, says that Venezuela is only producing 30 percent of the food it needs, a record low. But there are experts who say this is an optimistic estimate. What picture does this paint of the situation?

It gives us a picture of shortages that are going to get worse. Corn production and corn flour, for instance, which is an essential food for us, it is serious, because it is also enriched with iron, and with vitamin A, and complex B among others — for some people this was their only source of iron.

The problem has increased so much that some studies suggest that 63 percent of the children in the poorest communities have anemia. Sources of iron in Venezuela have all but dried up: cornmeal, meat, fish and grains, for example, which were also a source, are priced unrealistically.

So what access does a poor family have to these foods? None at all. You cannot buy them. I have seen the sad faces of mothers who cannot buy milk, coffee, sugar, cereal, rice or cornmeal because of exorbitant prices. What do you give your children? I can tell you what they are giving: They boil Elephant’s ear leaf and give it a baby bottle of leaf water, or rice, when they can get rice; or a bottle of water that was left in the dough. That is why we are receiving children with severe malnutrition, because they have no sources of protein.

There is money to do things properly, so the problem is more that food is the main source of corruption in this country.

What role does corruption play in this whole scenario?

Corruption is so serious that it is linked to increased poverty, increased malnutrition and deaths that are occurring due to hunger in the country. We cannot hide that anymore. The state has diverted its responsibility of providing food and healthcare to Venezuelans, which is enshrined in the constitution. In addition, a child’s right to food is enshrined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

Different sources have told me that, for example, government officials are shopping in Mexico, with their hands full, things that from the nutritional point of view have no value whatsoever. They add sauces for people, instead of a kilogram of flour, or a kilogram of beans, that will nourish them, because they have protein.

Whose hands are we in? In the hands of people who have no idea what they should be doing. There is enough money in the country to feed us, but they are not using it properly.

These people can be accused of crimes against humanity. When you deny people food, it is a very serious situation. In Venezuela we ask ourselves, are these people really aware of the harm they are doing? Do not tell me they do not have advisors and do not know, of course they know! What happens is that the personal interests of certain groups are valued over the human right to life and nutrition. We cannot understand how, as Venezuelans, they can commit such crimes.

Just as “bachaqueo” (buying and reselling) was criticized a lot, described as the poor exploiting other poor people, it is horrible to think that there are Venezuelans who use food as a weapon. Because food control is a political weapon: if I control food, I control power. And today there is a clear manipulation of the masses.

Pedro García Otero Pedro García Otero

Pedro García is the Spanish managing editor of the PanAm Post. He is a Venezuelan journalist with over 25 years of experience in local newspapers, radio, television, and online media. Follow him @PedroGarciaO.