CARACAS, Venezuela — To be a child in Venezuela today is dangerous.
Here in the capital on any given afternoon, emaciated teens pick through rotting garbage for food. Children have been abandoned to extended family or orphanages by parents who can no longer afford to keep them. Newborns have been discarded in dumpsters.
Poverty isn’t new here. The distribution of wealth in this oil-rich nation has always been unequal — a reason the socialist leader Hugo Chávez rose to power two decades ago. But years into Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, the government systems that once coordinated services for the poor have collapsed, and children have been among those hit the hardest. Consider some numbers:
In seven of the largest states, more than half of children under 5 suffer from malnutrition, according to the relief agency Caritas Venezuela.
An estimated 840,000 children have lost at least one parent to emigration, the child advocacy group Cecodap reports.
School attendance has fallen by half in the past two years, according to Fe y Alegria, a network of Jesuit schools that serve the nation’s poorest neighborhoods.
Infant mortality spiked to 11,466 deaths in 2016, a 30 percent increase from the year before, the Ministry of Health reported in 2017. The health minister who published that information was fired days after its release; the government hasn’t provided data on children’s health since.
That’s on top of the conditions that are devastating much of Venezuela’s population: Hyperinflation and joblessness, power outages and shortages of medicine, food and water. The United Nations estimates that 3.7 million people have fled the country.
While the government is paralyzed by mismanagement, corruption and political stalemate, social workers, teachers and advocates say children are losing their childhood to uncertainty, anxiety and fear, robbing them of healthy development and threatening long-term harm to the nation.
“We have a broken country that is sacrificing its future,” says Abel Saraiba, a psychologist with Cecodap.
Under the government’s centralized child welfare system, social workers once managed cases and directed services through school programs, family courts and orphanages. But that safety net has tattered. Nelson Villasmil, a government social worker in Caracas, says thousands of cases in the judicial system have been waiting for resolution for years.
Each day, Villasmil says, he receives 15 to 20 parents struggling to figure out what do with their kids because they’re emigrating.
“I often ask myself if I’m doing enough to protect children,” he said. “The answer is no. Because I can’t. This is the worst time to be a child in Venezuela.”
The Venezuelan government did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Nonprofits — Caritas, Fe y Alegria, the Red Cross and others — are trying to fill the gaps: Providing meals for children, helping parents lay out care instructions for the children they leave behind when they migrate, seeking donations from Venezuelans abroad to equip schools with water filters and basic supplies.
Private orphanages are full, holding children for longer than is recommended and scrambling for money to provide psychological services to street children.
Milagros Parada is a lanky teenager with a lot on her mind. The 14-year-old, who used to own plenty of shoes, has skipped school some days because she had nothing to wear on her feet. She goes weeks without eating meat. She’s forgotten what a cup of cold water tastes like.
Her family — her mother and six siblings, living in the west Caracas barrio of La Vega — was never rich. But they never went without. There was always money for food and for school supplies and uniforms. Now those basics are out of reach.
So Milagros worries. Sometimes she loses sleep, thinking about all the things she has lost and all the things her mother needs and all the ways Milagros wants to help and all the ways she can’t.
“Sometimes I think my mom is going to have a heart attack or her head is going to explode,” she says. “I’ve never seen my mother like this.”
Why, Milagros asks of no one in particular, can’t she have a drink of cold water before bed? What will it mean for her education that class ends two hours early because the teacher left the country? Why doesn’t she get a snack after school anymore, or meat for dinner?
The answers are always unsatisfying.
“I want Venezuela to be like it was,” she says.
At an orphanage on the other side of Caracas, a 4-year-old cups her great-grandmother’s shriveled face in her plump little hands and pecks her with kisses.
“Take me home with you,” she implores.
Gabriela Román endures this farewell twice a week at Las Villas de Los Chiquiticos orphanage, where she has surrendered her three great-granddaughters.
Their mother left for Colombia last year. Then their father went after her. They have not been heard from since.
Román, who survives on a meager government pension, can barely afford to feed herself.
Chronic malnutrition is now widespread. The food that is available is unaffordable for many families.
Children “don’t know when they’re going to eat, and they get the sense, growing up, that no matter what they do, they’re not going to make it,” said psychologist Ninoska Zambrano, who works with the nonprofit that runs the orphanage. Organizers now offer food to more than 500 vulnerable families in the slums of Caracas.
Carlos Trapani, Cecodap’s director, speaks of the child who was convinced his father didn’t love him anymore because instead of receiving two arepas — white corn cakes — at breakfast, he received one.
“The trust between the child and adult is broken when basic things aren’t provided,” said Nathalie Abuchaibe, the orphanage’s director.
Román, 75, takes a bus from her home in the Caracas slum of Petare to spend 90 minutes playing and talking with her great-granddaughters. She lovingly wipes from their faces the fibrous remains of a mango that cost so much she probably won’t eat that day.
“I don’t sleep well without them,” Román said. “If this wasn’t happening, those girls would not be here.”
She barely has the strength to place the three girls — ages 4, 3 and 18 months — into a miniature, battery-powered car that looks like a Cadillac Escalade. The batteries are shot, so she exerts all her energy pushing the play vehicle slowly across the orphanage’s courtyard as the girls squeal. Then, unable to steer, they hit a brick wall.
It’s time for Román to go.
On the other side of Caracas in the more affluent neighborhoods of the Chacao district, Alejandro, 15, and his two siblings arise early from the pieces of cardboard they sleep on to pick through garbage for something to eat. They call it recycling.
Alejandro left his home in Petare years ago. Soon, his 12- and 11-year-old sisters joined him in begging.
“This is a wounded generation, and we have failed them,” Trapani said.
The Rev. Alfredo Infante says the crisis is robbing the children in his parish of their childhoods. Schools were dying. Poverty corroded families. And the children’s prayers contorted. They went from asking for divine intervention on school tests to pleading with the saints to ensure that food would grace their tables at dinnertime.
Yaneth Moraima is principal of the Manuel Aguirre school in Petare, which serves 916 students from grades one through 12.
“They’ve stopped playing, stopped being themselves, to stand in lines for food, water and to stay home to take over adult responsibilities,” she said.
Dozens of teachers have left. Moraima still opens the school to give children an escape. The Red Cross helps supply food.
“They don’t return for an education, they come for a meal,” she said. “It’s getting harder to serve the children. They fight more often. Their lives are steeped in anxiety.”
The same is true in Infante’s barrio. One day deep in prayer, the Jesuit priest remembered the film “Life Is Beautiful.”
“That movie was all about a father trying to protect his son from the horrors of the Holocaust through play,” he said. “I wondered if I could do the same.”
Infante opens up a school as a crisis-free zone, where for a few hours each day, children get to pretend Venezuela hasn’t changed. Milagros — the 14-year-old — runs barefoot behind a soccer ball on a dusty basketball court, towering over malnourished prepubescent boys.
“Here, we don’t talk about politics,” she said. “Here, I am free.”
Volunteers from the barrio serve meals, paint faces, umpire kickball games and help the little ones fashion kites out of plastic bags and sticks. It’s the one place where children don’t have to hear or talk about the “situation.”
“This is their oxygen,” said Flor Fuentes, 33, a special-education teacher who volunteers with Infante’s recreation program. “They know we start at 9 in the morning, but sometimes the kids are here as early as 7 a.m.”
Plans are in place to show “Life Is Beautiful” to parents to teach them not to transmit their anguish to the children. Infante and Moraima are working with other nonprofits in Caracas to train families to withstand the crisis emotionally.
Gioconda Iguaro, 36, brings her daughter to jump and scream and socialize. It’s a distraction for the 9-year-old, but it also relieves stress for the mother. Iguaro tries to hide Venezuela’s woes from her daughter, but the girl knows.
“My daughter complains and asks me questions like, ‘Mami, why don’t we have a car anymore?’ Or, ‘Why do we no longer eat cookies?’ Sometimes I explode and yell at her. There have been so many times that I’ve had to apologize.”
“It’s tough to be a mother in Venezuela. You want to give your kids the best, but you can’t.”