For a time the “Saudi Arabia” of South America, today Venezuela more closely resembles Syria. Economically destroyed and socially unstable, the country is now fighting an ever more alarming spectre: hunger. In the slum of Petare in the metropolitan area of the capital, Caracas, refrigerators remain empty, supermarket queues grow longer and the necessity of procuring something to eat drives young people to violence.
Community volunteers serve food to children at a kitchen run by Alimenta la Solidaridad, a local NGO working in Petare, in February 2019.
A member of a kidnapping gang watches through the window to avoid a potential police raid. He is 15 years old and joined the gang to support his family.
Many come together in armed gangs, plunder houses and shops, rob food from passersby and are paid in foodstuffs. Unsustainable inflation has caused prices to double week after week; today, nine out of 10 Venezuelans do not feel they have the sufficient resources to buy food. For some time now the government has been trying to remedy this through the “Clap” plan, which distributes food to civilians. But this does not seem to be enough and hunger is now one of the greatest threats to Venezuela’s fragile national security.
The IMF predicts Venezuela’s inflation rate will reach 10 million per cent in 2019. Hunger is forcing more and more people to get food through violence.
A woman stares at her empty fridge at her house in Petare. Right, Mayra Castro, 37, prepares food in her improvised home. Her youngest daughter died of hunger when she was only one year old.
According to the last national survey of living conditions (Encovi), 80% of homes in Venezuela are food insecure; for many families, even the most basic items such as tomatoes or beans are out of reach.
A grandmother feeds her grandchild at a charity kitchen run by volunteers and an NGO. Often, one person sacrifices their meal so that other family members can eat more.
According to a 2018 report by the international NGO federation Cáritas, 65% of the children they had worked with were suffering from various levels of malnutrition.
A woman gives food to a girl at a charity-run kitchen for children in Petare. Right, fish ready to be cooked.
Men unload Clap boxes containing basic food supplies in Petare. Clap boxes are one of the measures implemented by Nicolás Maduro’s government to fight what they term as the “economic war”.
About 87% of households now receive Clap’s subsidised food, yet it is never clear when the next cargo of boxes will arrive. It has been highly criticised by the opposition as a tool for ensuring the votes of the poorest members of society.
Children look for food in a rubbish dump in an alleyway behind a large shopping centre. According to Cáritas, 53% of families have had to look for food in unconventional places, often meaning among rubbish.
The Maduro government is distributing free boxes of food, but this plan (Clap) has not proven to be enough to solve the crisis. Almost 90 per cent of Venezuelans do not have the economic resources to buy food. (Source: Encovi)
Robberies have become a major cause for concern; they often become homicides when victims who resist are killed.
A police officer registers suspects during a raid. Below, a policeman confiscates a knife during a night patrol, and, right, a policeman searches a homeless man suspected of stabbing a person in order to rob him.
Roxana Gutierrez, 19, watches over her son. When she and her husband Carlos, 20, had steady jobs, it became harder for them to find food, which pushed Carlos to begin stealing motorcycles. He is now serving a prison sentence, and Roxanna is pregnant with their second child.
People queue up in the morning in front of a small market to try and buy food. Endless queues have become a daily reality for Venezuelans. In many cases, the cargo doesn’t arrive or is not enough.
Have you noticed a deterioration in the conditions for ordinary people in the time you have been covering the crisis?
Absolutely. One thing that struck me in 2018 was the endless queues to buy what scarce food was left. Some people would queue during the night so they could buy some chicken or rice. Now, on my second trip to the country in January and February, I wanted to photograph some of those lines again, but it was impossible: people have so little money now that they can no longer afford to go to the supermarket. There are no lines anymore. This is just one example but there are many.
Blackouts are constant in Caracas. At least two people have died in hospital after the electricity was off for several hours. Medical supplies are gone. Pharmacies are empty.
With a population of over one million people, the neighbourhood of Petare in Caracas is Venezuela’s most dangerous slum. The majority of violent crimes occur in the slums, home to the most vulnerable and hardest hit by the crisis.
And I actually think that this never-ending spiral of economic collapse is changing everything. The rhetoric of the socialist revolution that Chávez started was sustained on the premises that everything was serving one ultimate goal: to serve the people, the poorest of the poor, and achieve social justice. Everything, from the mass government nationalisation of private assets and industries to the increase of the military and security forces, people were told, was done to serve that end. There were murals of Chávez in every street and he was the people’s hero.
A political mural shows the eyes of former President Hugo Chávez.
But now, the economic free-fall under Maduro’s administration is hardest hitting for those same people. While the rich and middle class can migrate or earn in dollars, the poorest are the ones suffering from hunger and the rise of violence. So the same people that once cheered Chavez are revolting against Maduro. For the first time, there was a protest in a barrio (slum neighbourhood). The government responded to the protest by sending the FAES – a special armed force called an “extermination group” by some human rights NGOs. They killed 43 people, according to Provea, a local NGO. So, now, even the barrios, the strongholds of the chavismo (chavezism), are somehow revolting against Maduro’s government.
The crisis has turned Venezuela into one of the most violent countries in the world: at least 73 Venezuelans are murdered every day.
A tense calm holds on the streets of the José Félix Ribas slum after a search by special forces in January for people who had protested on the day Juan Guaidó declared himself president in charge
How has the political crisis for the Maduro regime affected the security situation?
The political crisis has meant more instability and also repression. As said above, dozens have been killed after participating in demonstrations.
At the same time, the economic crisis has meant prices doubling every week. Even employed people with steady jobs can’t afford to buy the most basic goods. The last Encovi survey reported 89.4% of respondents said their household income was not enough to buy food and 61% reported sleeping hungry at night. Another report from Cáritas found the average family required 98 times the minimum wage to afford adequate food to subsist.
Riot police stand ready at the entrance of Caracas’ main university in January 2019.
In a country where virtually all crimes go unpunished and money is worth less than the paper it is printed on, crime becomes a viable solution to hunger. Fathers go out at night to steal motorcycles. Gangsters recruit youngsters by paying them in food. Crime and insecurity are on the rise. Robberies and kidnappings have become a major industry.
Juan Guaidó attends a Sunday service at the Chacao church a few days after proclaiming himself interim president of Venezuela. At the church he was acclaimed as “my president” by his supporters.
Many are leaving the country – do you think Juan Guaido provides hope?
I believe he does, both in Venezuela and abroad. He was recently on a tour to other Latin American countries and the Venezuelan diaspora was cheering him, many crying that he would help them come back to their homes. People are desperate and they have found in him a symbol. It is part of the process that has turned him from an unknown politician a few weeks ago to a sort of messiah today. I believe that one of the pictures I took of him in a church in Caracas, with all the international and local media in front of him, illustrates this. It will be very hard to meet their expectations …
A woman cries during the funeral of her husband, Keiber Cubero, 25. Father to a little girl and struggling to find food, Keiber went to rob a restaurant with two friends during the night. They were caught and killed by police officers while fleeing the scene.
How do you personally approach covering a story which is one of so much fear and desperation for so many people?
Personally, I take on this sort of project with a major feeling of respect and a huge feeling of responsibility. I understand that most of the situations I witness are truly uncomfortable moments for my subjects – garbage picking, at a funeral, behind bars – and yet they allow me to photograph them in exchange for their message being spread.
Keiber Cubero’s body is carried by friends to the cemetery.
The family of Keiber Cubero prays in front of his coffin.
Keiber Cubero’s wife and daughter give the last goodbye. Right, family members mourn the death of Yoveiker Mendoza, 17, killed by a branch of Venezuela’s special forces.
For example, I was able to take pictures during the funeral of a young man named Keiber Cubero. I am sure his family was heartbroken and it was hard to have a camera pointing at them (I am sure it would be hard for me if that ever happened to me). But they allowed me to be there because they felt that what happened to Keiber wasn’t fair, and that it had to be known. I always feel the responsibility of having to deliver on my end, of making sure that the story is told. It happened with Keiber, but it’s the same with pretty much every subject in the story.
Prisoners beg for food and water at their cells in a police station. Many said they had regular jobs but turned to crime because of the impossibility of bringing food home.
Is there a moment or a photograph that particularly stands out in this feature that you can talk about?
I think that the one taken at the police station, with the hands coming out from the bars, is quite shocking. I was only able to take a few frames because we had very little time. It was extremely hot and humid inside and there were no windows or sources of light beyond a small lamp at the end of the cells. I was also able to talk with the inmates, and most of them told me what I was trying to tell with my story: that many people are forced to turn to crime in order to survive.
Prisoners crammed into their cells at a police station. Although prison overcrowding has been an issue for decades, the Venezuelan prison system has now reached the point of collapse.
Children play on a football pitch in Mamera, one of the most dangerous slums in Caracas. The lack of food is also causing an educational crisis, since many mothers refuse to take their children to school on an empty stomach.
The Venezuelan people seem to be incredibly resilient in the face of such difficult hardships as a lack of basic resources – how do you think people are able to cope?
They are indeed incredibly resilient, but I think they are growing more desperate by the minute. Millions weren’t able to cope and left the country while others who were left behind are suffering from mental disorder and depression. Wherever you go there are only two topics: the crisis and the hyperinflation. The economic aspect has become such a huge part of everyone’s life it is making people crazy.
A young girl walks past a pavement where, a few minutes earlier, a man had stabbed three people with a kitchen knife.
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