Starvation and Sickness in the Wake of Venezuela’s Economic Collapse

BY BEN GROBMAN

On Wednesday, January 24, 2018, Marcos Carvajal, a former pitcher for the Colorado Rockies and Miami Marlins of Major League Baseball, died in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela. The cause of death was pneumonia, a common disease which is easily curable by simple antibiotics. However, due to dire shortages of medicine in Venezuela, the former elite athlete succumbed to his illness at the age of 34.1 In 2014, tanking oil prices pushed the once wealthy nation of Venezuela into a downward economic spiral. This economic crisis has caused massive inflation, as well as shortages in food and medicine, leaving everyday Venezuelans destitute, sick, and starving. Throughout the crisis, the government of President Nicolas Maduro has been highly ineffective, increasingly displaying authoritarian tendencies. 

In 1999, Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela. A socialist from a humble background, Chavez was incredibly charismatic, and inspired deep loyalty from the Venezuelan masses. Chavez was further aided by a global oil boom in the early 2000s which bolstered Venezuela’s economy due to Venezuela’s massive oil reserves. Chavez then invested much of the resulting influx of capital in social programs. As a result, Chavez was politically successful, remaining in power until 2013, when he died from cancer at the age of 58.2 After Chavez’s death, his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, was narrowly elected in a special election.3 Maduro is known for imitating Chavez’s charisma and mannerisms, going as far as to call himself ‘The Son of Chavez.’2,3 However, Maduro lacks both Chavez’s charm and his economic good fortune. Chavez was able to invest so much money in social programs because he spent very little money on building infrastructure and creating a sustainable economy in Venezuela, instead relying on imports to supply basic goods and uphold Venezuela’s economy.4 

In 2014 the oil boom which bolstered Chavez throughout his tenure came to a sudden halt. As oil prices crashed, so did the fragile Venezuelan economy, sending Venezuela into an economic spiral which “[makes] the Great Depression seem like a mild recession.”2,5 During this time, Venezuela has experienced extreme hyperinflation, which has gotten so bad that the Venezuelan Central Bank stopped reporting inflation data after 2016.6 However, the International Monetary Fund has projected that Venezuela will experience inflation of 13,000 percent during 2018.5 As a result of this extreme inflation, money in Venezuela has become near worthless. In early 2018, president Maduro raised the minimum wage in Venezuela by 40%, with the stated intent of protecting Venezuelan workers. While this 40% increase brings the monthly minimum wage to near 800,000 bolivars each month, this is only worth $7, or 23 cents per day. Economists have also predicted that this raise in the minimum wage will only cause even more rapid inflation, offsetting any meager benefits. Due to this economic crisis, the Venezuelan economy is projected to shrink by an additional 15 percent in 2018. This projection would bring Venezuela to a 50% overall reduction in GDP just since 2013.7 

Empty shelves in a Venezuelan supermarket.
Source: Wikimedia

In early 2017 thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to engage in daily protests against president Maduro’s expanding power, as well as the dire state of the Venezuelan economy.8 During these protests, which lasted from April to July of 2017, over a hundred protesters were killed.9 However, as protests died down, what remained was a broken state, in which the once stable and relatively prosperous Venezuela had devolved into extreme poverty for the vast majority of its inhabitants. Meanwhile, president Maduro has become an increasingly authoritarian, out of touch, and unpopular leader. Throughout the crisis, he has refused foreign aid to Venezuela, blaming outside influences such as the United States for Venezuela’s economic state.10 In a particularly notorious incident, the already plump Maduro took a bite out of an empanada during a live televised address, earning himself widespread mockery and condemnation.11 The most significant aspect of this drastic rise in poverty has been the shortage in food and medicine throughout Venezuela. Since the 2014 economic recession, access to food and basic medicines has been limited for the majority of Venezuelans. Even before the protests of 2017, the average Venezuelan was unable to afford satisfactory quantities of food. In a national survey done at the end of 2016, three-quarters of Venezuelans reported having lost an average of nineteen pounds over the previous year.4 Entering 2018, the crisis has only worsened. 

While unrest remains prevalent in Venezuela, it is no longer due to the protests of middle-class political protesters. Instead it stems from impoverished Venezuelans, who, desperate for basic nutrition, have increasingly protested shortages of basic necessities. During the so-called “pork revolution” in December 2017, thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets after the Venezuelan government failed to deliver on promises of delivering pork legs to poor Venezuelans for Christmas. President Maduro blamed Portugal, claiming that the shipments had been sabotaged. The Portuguese company responsible for delivery of the pork responded that the Venezuelan government was 40 million euros behind on payments for the shipment of pork legs from the previous year.12 In acts of desperation, starving Venezuelans have increasingly taken to looting in order to obtain food. In the first half of January 2018 alone, over a hundred incidents of looting were recorded.13 In early 2018, reports emerged of mobs of people raiding farms, and videos were taken showing cows being stoned to death before being ripped apart and carried off in pieces.14 Many other formerly well-off Venezuelans routinely scavenge through garbage dumps at night, hoping to find food in the garbage that restaurants and supermarkets throw out after closing.10 A 2016 report noted that in Venezuela, formerly the country with the highest per capita income in all of South America, 90% of households were food insecure.4,10 Not only are individuals unable to afford food, many supermarkets lack money to stock their shelves, leading to aisles completely barren of goods.10 

Venezuela’s lack of access to food has most powerfully affected Venezuelan children and as the crisis has continued, there has been a sharp increase in deaths due to malnutrition. Between 2012 and 2015, the mortality rate for children under 4 weeks old increased by a factor of 100, with newer statistics showing even further increases in child mortality.10 As food has become increasingly scarce, hospitals have started to see daily cases of children with severe malnutrition. In a late 2017 report by the New York Times, doctors in 9 hospitals reported nearly 400 deaths due to malnutrition in one year.10 Many hospitals have become so overwhelmed with patients that they are forced to turn severely malnourished children away. Hospitals themselves are severely lacking in basic supplies, often unable to provide the children they accept with lifesaving baby formula and other needed treatments.10 

Just as everyday Venezuelans are unable to afford basic living necessities, Venezuelan hospitals are unable to afford needed medicines, leaving the Venezuelan medical system on the verge of collapse. Venezuelan hospitals only possess 5% of the medicines they require to function normally, meaning that patients who are admitted to the hospital are rarely able to receive the medicines they need. Additionally, hospitals only have 25% of the beds needed for a country of Venezuela’s size. As a result, footage has emerged of pregnant women delivering babies on waiting room floors and patients being treated on the floors of emergency rooms.15 Lack of health infrastructure has also led to the reemergence of previously controlled diseases, with sharp increases in reports of diphtheria and malaria.15 To make matters worse, as wages have plummeted, even skilled workers such as doctors have found themselves unable to maintain a basic standard of living. Even with their extensive training, doctors make just over $100 a month, causing over 13,000 doctors to leave Venezuela during the crisis.16 Others have turned to prostitution, enabling them to make $25 an hour.17 

Police cars burn during a 2014 protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
Source: Flickr

As a result of the collapse of the healthcare system, everyday Venezuelans have been forced to turn to the black market in order to obtain the medicines they need. Everyday market sellers routinely sell medicines which have been smuggled from nearby countries such as Colombia. While these sellers may possess necessary medicines, the medicine has often been improperly kept or is expired, making it unsafe for consumption. Despite this, in their desperation, many Venezuelans purchase and consume this contraband medicine. However, even when presented with access to medicines which they are unable to find through legal avenues, due to their meager wages many Venezuelans are unable to afford even this black market medicine.18

So what’s next for Venezuela? In January the Venezuelan government announced that a presidential election will be held in April. The Maduro government has previously rigged local elections, and the fairness of the upcoming election is dubious, with multiple opposition parties already being banned.19, 20 In a particularly cruel twist, the I.D.s used for voter registration are the same as those used to register for food subsidies, and rumours have spread of subsidies being denied to those who vote for the opposition.19 Despite this, Maduro is so unpopular that it may be possible for him to lose even an unfair election.20 Regardless of political developments, the outlook for Venezuela is bleak. Even with proper management, it will be many years before the country that was once the richest in South America can undo the damage of its current economic collapse.21 

Ben Grobman is a first-year in Saybrook College and a prospective Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Major.

——————————

References:

  1. Ebro, J. (2018, January 25). Former Marlins pitcher dies in Venezuela because of lack of medication. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://www.miamiherald.com/sports/mlb/miami-marlins/article196701969.html 
  2. Aleem, Z. (2017, September 19). How Venezuela went from a rich democracy to a dictatorship on the brink of collapse. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://www.vox.com/world/2017/9/19/16189742/venezuela-maduro-dictator-chavez-collapse
  3. Finnegan, W. (2017, December 09). Venezuela, A Failing State. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/14/venezuela-a-failing-state
  4. Aleem, Z. (2017, February 22). Venezuela’s economic crisis is so dire that most people have lost an average of 19 pounds. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://www.vox.com/world/2017/2/22/14688194/venezuela-crisis-study-food-shortage
  5. Mora, A. (2018, January 28). Venezuela: making the Great Depression look like a mild recession. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://thehill.com/opinion/international/371051-venezuelas-dire-state-makes-the-great-depression-look-like-a-mild
  6. Kentish, B. (2017, February 23). Venezuelans lose average of 19lb in weight due to nationwide food shortages, study suggests. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/venezuela-weight-loss-average-19lb-pounds-food-shortages-economic-crisis-a7595081.html
  7. Biller, D. (2018, January 25). IMF Projects Venezuela Inflation Will Soar to 13,000 Percent in 2018. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-25/imf-sees-venezuela-inflation-soaring-to-13-000-percent-in-2018
  8. P., & Kohut, T. M. (2017, July 22). The Battle for Venezuela, Through a Lens, Helmet and Gas Mask. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/22/world/americas/venezuela-protests-maduro.html
  9. Cawthorne;, A. (2017, November 30). Year of protests and crisis in volatile Venezuela. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-global-poy-venezuela/year-of-protests-and-crisis-in-volatile-venezuela-idUSKBN1DU1KQ
  10. Kohut, M., & Herrera, I. (2017, December 17). As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/17/world/americas/venezuela-children-starving.html
  11. Hayes, C. (2017, December 29). As his people starve, Venezuelan President munches on empanada while addressing the nation on live TV. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://www.newsweek.com/venezuelan-president-eats-empanada-live-tv-while-addressing-starving-nation-701050
  12. Brocchetto, M. (2017, December 28). Angry Venezuelans take to streets for ‘pork revolution’. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/28/americas/venezuela-portugal-christmas-sabotage/index.html
  13. Smith, S., & Sanchez, F. (2018, January 30). Venezuelans Are So Hungry ‘They Have to Loot to Eat’. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://time.com/5124666/venezuela-food-shortage-crisis-looting/
  14. Mailonline, I. B. (2018, January 12). Starving mob beat cattle to death with rocks in desperate search for food and four people are killed during looting in Venezuela as country’s economic collapse continues. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5262257/Starving-mob-beat-cattle-death-rocks-Venezuela.html
  15. Delgado, A. M. (2017, November 9). Crisis in Venezuelan hospitals: too many patients, too few beds. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/venezuela/article182770351.html
  16. Raphelson, S. (2018, February 01). Venezuela’s Health Care System Ready To Collapse Amid Economic Crisis. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/2018/02/01/582469305/venezuelas-health-care-system-ready-to-collapse-amid-economic-crisis
  17. Wyss, J. (2017, September 22). In Venezuela, they were teachers and doctors. To buy food, they became prostitutes. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/venezuela/article174808061.html
  18. Pons, C., & Ulmer;, A. (2017, December 08). Venezuela’s chronic shortages give rise to ‘medical flea markets’. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-medicine/venezuelas-chronic-shortages-give-rise-to-medical-flea-markets-idUSKBN1E21J4
  19. Venezuela’s Opposition Has Been Banned from 2018 Elections. (2017, December 11). Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://time.com/5058003/venezuela-nicolas-maduro-opposition-banned/
  20. Toro, F. (2018, January 24). Opinion | Venezuela has just announced an election – and it’s terrible news for democracy. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2018/01/24/venezuela-has-just-announced-an-election-and-its-terrible-news-for-democracy/21. S. (2018, January 25). For Venezuela, There’s a Little Light at the End of the Tunnel. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/venezuela-theres-little-light-end-tunnel

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