Francibel Contreras brings her three malnourished children to a soup kitchen in the dangerous hillside Caracas slum of Petare where they scoop in spoonfuls of rice and scrambled eggs in what could be their only meal of the day.
Part of the tragedy of daily life in socialist Venezuela can be glimpsed in this small volunteer soup kitchen in the heart of one of Latin America’s biggest slums, which helps dozens of children as well as unemployed mothers who can no longer feed them.
Some Venezuelans manage to endure the nation’s economic meltdown by clinging to the shrinking number of well-paid jobs or by receiving some of the hundreds of millions of dollars sent home by friends and relatives abroad — a quantity that has swollen in recent years as millions of Venezuelans have fled.
But a growing percentage of people across the country, especially in slums like Petare, are struggling to cope.
Contreras’s husband, Jorge Flores, used to have a small stand at a local market selling things like bananas and yucca, eggs and lunchmeat — trying to scrape out a profit in a place where hyperinflation often made his wholesale costs double from day to day. Then he was robbed at gunpoint by a local gang. And his brother crashed the motorcycle he used to supply his stand.
So Flores abandoned the market stall and looked for other work. He does some plumbing jobs and the family has turned its living room into a barbershop, sheltered beneath a corrugated metal roof held down by loose bricks and planks. It’s decorated with origami-like stars that the family has made out Venezuela’s colorful but rapidly depreciating bolivar bills.
“Our currency is worthless,” Contreras said. “These days, I prefer trading a bag of flour for a manicure or a haircut.”
The scarcity of milk, medicine and other basics — along with routine violence — has eroded support for socialist President Nicolas Maduro even in poor neighborhoods like Petare that once were his strongholds. Maduro says there’s an opposition-led plot to oust him from power and says U.S. economic sanctions and local opposition sabotage are responsible for the meltdown.
Various local polls show he retains support from roughly a fifth of the population, many of them ideological stalwarts, government-connected insiders or poor voters dependent on government handouts, including the so-called CLAP boxes of oil, flour, rice, pasta, canned tuna and other goods that arrive several times a year.
Contreras’ family of four gets those boxes, but it’s not enough to get by on for long. For months, they’ve been relying on the soup kitchen launched by opposition politicians as the main source of protein for their children. On a recent day, her 7-year-old son Jorbeicker played a pickup soccer game in the hilly, dusty streets in front of her home, while her husband practiced styling his mother’s hair.
“I’m barely getting by,” Flores said, scissors in hand.
The four-day power outage that brought most of Venezuela to a halt this month added to Flores’ misery. He wasn’t able to use the electric clippers needed to give customers the sort of trims they demand.
“It hit us in a big way,” he said. “You absolutely need the clippers.”
The couple estimates the power outage cost the family the equivalent of $11 in missed haircuts — a significant sum in a country where the minimum wage amounts to $6 a month, even if most people supplement that figure by working side jobs and pooling resources with friends and neighbors.
Contreras and Flores charge 2,500 bolivars — about 70 U.S. cents — for a trim. A government-subsidized kilogram of flour can cost almost three times that, and Contreras says that lines for the rationed goods can be endless and she sometimes comes back empty-handed. She also said she feels unsafe in the lines. Dozens of people have been killed in gang crossfires over the years, and some have been crushed to death when lines of shoppers turned into stampedes of desperate looters.
Next-door neighbor Dugleidi Salcedo sent her 4-year-old daughter to live with an aunt in the city of Maracay, two hours away, because she could no longer feed her. “My boys cry,” the single mother of four said. “But they resist more than her when I tell them that there’s no food.”
After walking back from the soup kitchen, she opened the rusty door to her home of scraped, mint-colored walls. Inside, her 11-year-old son Daniel, who was born partially paralyzed and with developmental disabilities, lay on a stained couch while flies flew over his twisted, uncovered legs.
When she took the lid off a plastic container to show her last bag of flour, a cockroach crawled out, making her jump back and scream.
“This is so tough,” she said. “I don’t have a job. I don’t have any money.”
Salcedo used to sell baked goods and juices to neighbors from the window of her kitchen. Then, her fridge broke down and she couldn’t find the money to fix it.
These days, she relies on the kindness of neighbors, or asks a friend who owns a small food shop for credit while she waits for loans from family members in other parts of Venezuela.
“This country has never been as bad,” the 28-year-old said. “Just buying some rice or flour is something so hard, so expensive, and often, they don’t even have any.”
A few days later, thieves broke into the soup kitchen and stole food. Then, a fire broke out in the slum, burning 17 homes to the ground. It was caused by candles that were apparently being used for light after a power outage — an almost everyday occurrence in many parts of Venezuela. Opposition lawmaker Manuela Bolivar, whose Nodriza Project runs the soup kitchen, said that when firefighters arrived, they lacked water and had to put out the blaze with dirt.
“It’s a social earthquake,” Bolivar said.
“They lose their homes. They’re left in the open air. The soup kitchen was robbed. It’s so many adversities: It’s the infections, the lack of water and food.”
At an outdoor market a short distance from Petare in the middle-class district of Los Dos Caminos, Carmen Gimenez shopped for carrots and other vegetables for a stew. When her 14-year-old daughter Camila asked if they could take some other products, she told her that they would have to stick to the basics.
Although she has a job at a bank, she still struggles to make ends meet.
“It doesn’t matter where you live. The need is the same,” said Gimenez, 43.
“The poor, the rich, and the middle class — we’re all suffering somehow because the government has leveled us all downwards,” she adds with anger. “How did they dominate us? Through the stomach.”
Associated Press writer Scott Smith contributed to this story.