By Ron Gonzalez
Caracas, Jul 16 (efe-epa).- Two young brothers play amid a group of makeshift dwellings in Petare, the Venezuelan capital’s largest slum.
They don’t know it yet, but they’re part of a growing number of Venezuelan youth aged five and under whose futures are being jeopardized by poverty and malnutrition: scourges that threaten to stunt their own development and that of their homeland.
“The three-year-old is underweight … the two-year-old too,” the children’s father, Jose Gregorio Machado, who earns at best the equivalent of just $10 a week from washing cars on the street, told Efe.
Several years ago, Machado sought to escape the abject poverty of Barlovento – a run-down coastal sub-region of the north-central state of Miranda – by relocating to Petare, where his two youngest sons were born.
But his economic situation did not improve and he ended up living in one of the precarious dwellings that a group of about 100 families erected in a vacant lot.
Machado’s youngest children received food assistance from a non-governmental organization prior to the pandemic due to their below-average weight and height, but he said that aid has been interrupted for several months.
“The issue for that five-year-old (and younger) population is that children’s development occurs in those years, and particularly their brain, neuronal development,” Maria Gabriela Ponce, a researcher and member of a team that released an alarming study a few days ago, told Efe.
According to the Living Conditions Survey (Encovi), nearly one in 10 children aged five or younger in Venezuela – around 166,000 minors – suffer from malnutrition based on their weight-to-age ratios.
But when the relation of height to age is considered, the number of children five years or younger suffering from malnutrition jumps to 639,000, or three in every 10 Venezuelans in that demographic group.
The figure is believable considering that Venezuelans have suffered through the worst economic recession in their country’s modern history over the past five years, a crisis exacerbated by harsh financial sanctions that the United States has imposed on the country as part of its regime-change effort.
But it still is difficult to swallow for a people accustomed to thinking of themselves as prosperous because of their nation’s massive crude oil reserves.
The same Encovi survey reveals that 96 percent of Venezuelans are poor based on their daily income, which averages $0.72.
Ponce said the largest households are the ones with the highest levels of poverty and hunger.
Case in point is the family of Rosaura Rivas, leader of another squatter community in Petare.
“Let’s not beat around the bush. It’s a lie to say that children eat three meals a day, (and they eat even) less with this situation we have,” the 54-year-old woman told Efe while surrounded by several of her 16 grandchildren, referring to the coronavirus-triggered lockdowns that have further battered Venezuela’s economy.
A total of 48 children live in the squatter settlement that Rivas leads, all of whom live in extreme poverty and eat a maximum of one meal per day.
A government agency opened a food bank a few days ago in Petare to address the problem. But the initiative was met with scorn by many of the children’s parents, who complained of poorly prepared and protein-less food.
“The food they send us is poorly done. The rice is crude. There’s little protein, which shouldn’t happen,” Rivas said, adding that most of the children who live in the settlement are underweight.
She also complained about the infrequent service provided by the so-called Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP), a food-distribution program that leftist President Nicolas Maduro’s administration says is reaching some 6 million needy families.