In the dusty squatter settlement where she spent her short life, Victoria Martínez is remembered as a vivacious, dance-loving child who showered “buenos días” on all those she met.
“Wherever she went this girl was an explosion of love,” says her father, Misael.
In August, just a few days short of her fourth birthday, her life was brought to a sudden and premature end.
“Papi, get me out of here,” Misael recalls his daughter begging as she was rushed to intensive care, vomiting blood, having contracted what would prove a deadly bacterial infection.
Hours later, Victoria had died: yet another victim of the political and economic tsunami engulfing what was once one of Latin America’s most developed nations.
“As parents we still haven’t overcome this,” admits her 28-year-old father, who believes she was infected while being treated for leukemia at the paediatric hospital in Barquisimeto, Venezuela’s fourth largest city. “It was devastating for us.”
Victoria is one of at least 25 children who activists say have died since late 2016 because of the serratia marcescens bacterium – fatalities they blame on a “perfect storm” of unhygienic, resource-starved hospitals that lack even soap to clean their wards, malnourished patients who are susceptible to infection, and chronic shortages of antibiotics.
Her death provides a chilling snapshot of a healthcare system experts warn is heading for total collapse.
“We want the whole world to hear us,” said Carmen Padilla, a haemodialysis patient and campaigner for chronic patients in Barquisimeto. “Venezuela is not suffering a humanitarian crisis. Venezuela is in a complete humanitarian emergency.”
Even as Venezuela disintegrates, state media continue to paint a rosy picture of the country’s health service. Officials take to the airwaves each day to wax lyrical about Socialist party support schemes for expectant mothers and the poor.
One recent propaganda video boasted: “If there is one area where you feel and live the achievements of the Bolivarian revolution, it’s precisely in the field of healthcare, from which Venezuelan men and women were excluded for so many decades.”
President Nicolás Maduro claimed earlier this year: “The people’s health is our priority.”
A visit to the hospital where Victoria Martínez spent her final days suggests otherwise.
The burns unit is filled with bandaged toddlers who have stumbled into wood fires or been burned by kerosene lamps – increasingly common sources of fuel and light.
In the paediatric ward upstairs, mothers nurse emaciated babies – socks dangling from their tiny ankles, bones protruding through their flesh – who cannot be hydrated because the hospital cannot even provide a catheter.
One doctor asked: “What blame do these children have for having been born into the wrong era?”
Misael Martínez said he did not fault the hospital’s overstretched doctors for his daughter’s premature death: they had treated her “like a princess”.
But he described hospital conditions so precarious that his family had been asked to provide not only their own medicines, latex gloves and syringes, but also the cleaning products and water used to scrub down Victoria’s ward.
Experts say Venezuela’s health service improved in the first decade of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution, which started 20 years ago this month. Life expectancy rose and infant mortality rates fell as high oil prices allowed the country with the world’s greatest crude reserves to hurl resources at public healthcare, the Lancet medical journal noted earlier this year. Tens of thousands of Cuban doctors arrived to staff community “missions” that the government said were bringing free healthcare to the masses.
But that flagship programme has reportedly been brought to its knees by Venezuela’s economic collapse, placing even greater strain on the country’s already buckling hospital network. In November Human Rights Watch warned of Venezuela’s “devastating health crisis”, pointing to increasing rates of maternal and infant mortality and a spike in cases of measles, diphtheria, tuberculosis and malaria.
Another recent report noted that 53% of Venezuelan operating theatres were now closed, 71% of emergency rooms could not provide regular services and 79% of hospitals lacked a reliable water supply.
Meanwhile, medical professionals were joining a historic exodus overseas: at least 22,000 Venezuelan doctors – 55% of the total – reportedly abandoned the country between 2012 and 2017.
Lesbia Cortez, a healthcare worker at the Catholic charity Cáritas, said: “There are virtually no specialists left.” She estimated that 70% of those she studied with at medical school now practised in Colombia, Argentina or Chile.
She said: “You can’t find a endocrinologist because they’ve gone; a dermatologist because they’ve gone; an oncologist because they’ve gone. The people who work in the dialysis units aren’t there because they’ve left the country too.”
Alberto Paniz-Mondolfi, a doctor who recently returned to Venezuela from the United States to form a research group that studies the resurgence of vaccine-preventable and endemic diseases caused by the crisis, said: “I predict there is a moment when you are just going to be left without healthcare personnel in this country.
“If a medical school faculty member earns $20 a month, what can you expect?”
Padilla, the campaigner for chronic patients, said she believed Venezuela’s leaders should be jailed “for the crimes against humanity being committed” because of a breakdown critics blame partly on the chavista “missions” that channeled resources away from public hospitals.
Padilla, 45, whose kidneys failed from hypertension, said she had spent three years on a transplant list but was now waiting to die since a lack of doctors and equipment meant operations were not possible: “My life is in danger in Venezuela.”
Susana Mújica, who also suffers from kidney disease, grew angry as she considered Maduro’s cheery depiction of Venezuelan health.
She said: “He says in his broadcasts that nothing’s going on: that everything’s fine; that there is medicine; that there are doctors; that I-don’t-know-how-many-millions are being invested in healthcare. That this is [the result of] an economic war.
“We know the reality. It is crystal clear to us because we are the ones living this reality every day … Whether we live or die isn’t important to them. Their priority is staying in power.”
Martínez, Victoria’s grieving father, said he was still struggling to accept his daughter’s death but was determined to speak out in the hope of avoiding more needless deaths. He said: “I know that no one can bring back my daughter. But I know I have neighbours in this hospital, and cousins. I have friends who go to this hospital because they have nowhere else to go and so this is my struggle.”
He added: “I’m going to fight because I believe justice will come. And because I still believe that something will happen, that Venezuela will change, and that all this will pass.”
Additional reporting Patricia Torres and Clavel Rangel
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