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“It’s too early!” she says, with a muffled squeak. The pre-dawn light barely cracks into Dana’s room in her family’s ground-floor apartment in Petare, a giant barrio in Caracas.
All across Petare, in the thousands of modest homes perched on steep hills, children are doing something unusual for Venezuela these days.
They are going to school.
“I don’t really remember the last day I went to school,” says Dana, as one of her sisters plaits her long brown hair.
In the whole of March, children in Venezuela went to school fewer than 10 days.
“For two whole weeks we just stayed in the house. There was no school for ages and no transport. I just went out to the shops and back — that is all,” says Dana’s mom Yumiley Leon, 51.
She mixes flour with water as she speaks, carefully measuring out five arepas — a kind of cooked corn-meal patty — and places them on the stove.
“When the power first went out in March, my Dana was scared,” she says.
“But not that much,” Dana insists, crinkling her face, “I would sit on the couch over here. I just don’t like the dark really.”
The darkness lasted for days, leaving over 70% of the country without electricity and forcing the government to close schools and suspend work. Local media estimated that the outages affected at least 15 of the country’s 23 states.
Embattled president Nicolas Maduro blamed the blackouts on a terror attack and American sabotage.
But opposition chief Juan Guaido, who has been recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by more than 50 countries, says it’s the result of corruption and mismanagement. He has accused the Maduro government of neglecting the power grid and stealing the funds that could have kept it running.
When the power went out, Yumiley couldn’t access her electronic banking — vital to Venezuelans to pay bills and buy food. But she had managed to save 15 US dollars in cash.
“My boss gave me 10 dollars last September for my birthday. It was how we survived,” she says.
And they played board games. Lots of board games. “We played Monopoly and [board game] Ludo for hours!” says Dana, “but I really missed my school and my friends.”
All the missed schooldays are weighing on Dana’s father. “This is all lost time. One day that they miss school feels like a month,” says Marcel Cabezas, as he gets ready for work, slipping into a bathroom separated from the living area by a plastic sheet.
Marcel, 47, should make a decent living by Venezuelan standards. He has a day job in a marketing company and helps people manage their finances to earn extra money.
Venezuelans call such side hustles matara tigritos, or killing tigers. The extra effort necessary for survival.
It wasn’t always this way for Yumiley and Marcel. Despite coming from a modest background, where his parents could only afford public school, Marcel says he always used to be able to provide for his three daughters. Dana’s elder sister is now in nursing school, and the middle sister is finishing high school.
They had to be careful with their money, he says, but they used to have a good life.
Just a few years ago, they took vacations in Monagas state to visit family, sometimes stopping by the immense Guacharo limestone caves to show the kids. There were weekend trips to Higuerote, a beach town near Caracas.
“I would pack up all our food for the weekend and down we would just go,” says Yumiley, with a smile.
On Sundays they could always afford to go to a restaurant to eat.
All over their apartment walls there are memories of this better life. A photo of a confirmation celebration, a snapshot at the beach, birthday parties with friends.
“We gave big parties for Alanis and Norkys for their birthdays,” says Yumiley, referring to the older daughters. “But for Dana we had to stop.”
When the price of oil collapsed in 2014, the government was unable to sustain its socialist economy anchored on handouts and price controls. Inflation skyrocketed, making ordinary goods unaffordable for families in Venezuela.
In 2018, the International Monetary fund estimated that hyper-inflation had reached more than a million percent. And 2019 is set to be much worse.
For the past few months, the family has to skip meals several times a week, she says. On Sundays, they try to get up as late as possible, so they only have to eat twice.
“My favorite food is hamburger with fries!” says Dana, but she can’t remember the last time she had one.
The collapse of Venezuela’s economy has hit the family in both large and small ways.
Yumiley’s refrigerator went out with the blackouts. It will stay that way. When the washing machine broke, they couldn’t afford to fix it. Yumiley has been washing clothes by hand for more than a year.
But she couldn’t wash them at all during the March blackouts because the taps, powered by the grid, went dry. When their emergency tank emptied out, Marcel went out to search for water.
He fell off the truck when he tried to lift a container and ended up in bed on his back.
So Yumiley had to heft the container up the steep road to their apartment. Dana was impressed.
“My mom is so strong, she could carry an elephant,” she says.
Even as they gave up vacations, birthdays and meals, Marcel and Yumiley saved everything to send their daughters to modest private schools. And then with the blackouts, the schools shut down.
“We used to have a beautiful life, but because of time and the circumstances we have been drowned in poverty,” says Marcel, “not just the physical poverty, but intellectual poverty.”
Marcel swings his black work backpack over his shoulder and grabs Dana’s hand. She is wearing a crisp white shirt and navy pants of her school uniform. She has a light blue bow in her hair.
Her parents haven’t told her why there were blackouts. They try to shield her from exactly what is going on in the country.
But her best friend Derek from school has disappeared, as have uncle and cousins. All told, 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country, and she knows something is up.
“I would like to stay in Venezuela, because this is my country,” she says, before taking it back. “Well, maybe I would like to leave. But to leave and then come back.”
Maduro boasted on Thursday that schools are now back and the water and electricity problems are being solved. Many Venezuelans are skeptical that these basic services will continue for long, but they have few alternatives.
Sometimes, when the children and Marcel have left, Yumiley likes to have a quiet moment away from her struggles to look down into the steep valley of Petare.
There is usually a fresh breeze blowing through the metal grate behind her kitchen. It is her favorite place.
“I love this country. Where am I going to go?” she says.