Venezuela was once Latin America’s economic powerhouse. With some of the vastest oil reserves in the world, the country’s oil industry funded years of fiscal prosperity. Over the past few years, however, a combination of falling oil prices, collapsing oil production, and economic mismanagement has caused a steep economic decline. The problematic socialist policies of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro have produced terrible living conditions for all of Venezuela’s population and provoked a mass exodus from the country. But those harmed most by this humanitarian crisis are the most vulnerable: children.
A group of reporters sent by the New York Times to investigate the living conditions in Venezuela discovered a spike in the infant mortality rate in the country. In the 21 hospitals across Venezuela tracked by the reporters, “emergency rooms were being overwhelmed by children with severe malnutrition—a condition [doctors] had rarely encountered before the economic crisis began.”
Malnutrition has been spreading across the country due to a lack of baby formula. Many grocery stores, pharmacies, and even hospitals are in short supply. A mother who needs formula must often wait in long lines at the pharmacy or turn to the black market. Many families are turning to alternatives, such as cream of rice or cornstarch mixed with milk. These improvised substitutes are not supplying infants with the proper nutrients they need to grow and mature.
The Venezuelan government has tried to suppress the statistics on the rising levels of malnutrition-driven infant mortality. Public clinics and hospitals are asked not to report the cause of death for babies that die to malnutrition. The Ministry of Health’s 2015 annual report concluded that, “the mortality rate for children under 4 weeks old had increased a hundredfold, from 0.02 percent in 2012 to just over 2 percent.” After this report was released on the ministry’s website, the health minister was fired and the military police took control of the ministry in order to censor any future reports.
Venezuela’s nationalized healthcare system has been struggling to combat infant mortality as well as a resurgence of tuberculosis infecting the country. Venezuela at one point in time had boasted the lowest rates of infection in Latin America. Now the country is scrambling to find enough medical supplies and medical experts to fight the once eradicated diseases. Worse still, doctors are among the many Venezuelan citizens who are fleeing the country, leaving those who remain even worse equipped to fight disease.
This spike in deadly diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and malaria can be attributed to the poor living conditions in the country. Doctors say that the food shortages, high levels of stress, and people living in crowded homes all contribute to weakened immune systems. Historically, tuberculosis was a disease that stalked the impoverished, but it recently has spread to middle class families in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan government has tried to suppress the truth about the problems of the country from being spread around the world. Specialists trying to treat patients have claimed that the Venezuelan government had at one point halted the distribution of antibiotics and medical treatments.
Children in Venezuela also are turning to gangs to get enough food to eat. Social workers and police estimate that there are at least 10 different child gangs in Caracas. These child gangs fight with sticks, clubs, knives and machetes. The prize they are battling for is garbage. In order to get enough to eat, child gangs rummage through the trash for scraps, especially in affluent neighborhoods. These horrific conditions threaten to have long-term consequences. Studies have shown that adolescents exposed to gang violence, beside being prevented from pursuing educational and occupational opportunities, are likely to suffer from poor mental and physical health well into adulthood.
As the Venezuelan military and government continues to seize control of institutions in the nation, the living conditions of the average citizen continue to decline rapidly. The United States, the European Union and neighboring Latin American countries like Colombia have offered support to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the region. During a speech at the border city of Cúcuta, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said that President Maduro needed to do his part in ending the humanitarian disaster that has been spilling over Colombia’s border: “This is the result of your policies; it’s not the fault of us Colombians.” Santos urged his Venezuelan counterpart needed to accept humanitarian aid such as food and medicine from the international community.
Maduro, however, refuses. His government regularly claims that the aid is a Trojan Horse that would allow meddling by foreign leaders. In January, President Maduro said he would accept international assistance on the condition that the opposition party in Venezuela acknowledge the legitimacy of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), which was elected in an election that is generally considered to be illegitimate. To President Maduro, humanitarian aid is simply a bargaining chip in his race to consolidate political power.
Venezuela still has the potential to restore its economy. The country’s untapped supply of oil is vast, offering the country the chance to return to prosperity. The only thing standing in the way of the country’s success is its government’s poor choices. The “Bolivarian” socialism established by Hugo Chávez and continued by Nicolás Maduro has devastated the country. The short term solution for the country would be to accept foreign aid and offer relief to those suffering. This would involve the Maduro regime having to admit—at least partially—that its populist and socialist policies were detrimental to the country. But the long-term solution must be a return to democracy, the rule of law, and sane free-market policies. The future of Venezuela—and its children—depends on it.