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LatAm in Focus: Six Weeks to Fix Venezuela's Health Crisis

A mom and her 1-day-old baby in a Venezuelan maternity ward

A mom and her 1-day-old baby in a Venezuelan maternity ward. (AP)

July 21, 2017

.@susanaraffalli has worked in Angola, Indonesia, and Pakistan. Where does Venezuela remind her most of? Myanmar.
Up to 6 Venezuelan kids a week are dying of malnutrition. This wasn't happening 9 mos ago. #podcast @susanaraffalli

Six to eight weeks. That’s all it’d take to staunch and stabilize the health crisis in Venezuela if the government were to lift restrictions on basic food and medical supplies—not to mention currency, says Susana Raffalli, an advisor to Caritas Venezuela on nutrition, food security, and natural disaster risk. It’s not that the administration of President Nicolás Maduro doesn’t have the resources—it’s that the government refuses to address the issue in the first place. “The Venezuelan state doesn’t want to acknowledge the crisis, ask for help to manage it, or [take] responsibility,” Raffalli tells AS/COA Venezuela Working Group head Guillermo Zubillaga in this podcast.

The situation has become more acute in just the past several months. Last fall, Raffalli says there were maybe one or two fatalities due to malnutrition per quarter. “Now, we have 2, 4, and 6 children dying due to malnutrition per week. And that’s in Caracas. Can you imagine if we consider the entire country?” Per her organization’s research, 11.4 percent of Venezuelan children under 5 years old now suffer from moderate to severe acute malnutrition, surpassing the 10-percent threshold to qualify as a crisis, per the World Health Organization. And combined aggravating factors like the health crisis, economic crisis, and social tension and violence could push the malnutrition levels up to 15–18 percent of children, Raffalli estimates.

[Venezuela today] is similar to Myanmar in that the food crisis is state-made.

Raffalli, who also worked in Angola, Indonesia, and Pakistan, said the country Venezuela most resembles today in her experience is Myanmar in 2008, when that country was not only hit by a three crises at once, but crises that were exacerbated by the government. “What was really devastating was management of the food distribution system by the military junta,” says Raffalli. The Venezuelan state today employs a similarly controlling food distribution system, known as the CLAPs, controversial groups that sell poor-quality foodstuffs to low-income families who demonstrate allegiance to the government. Those families who aren’t a part of the CLAP system (and even those who are) face very real food shortages and grocery stores with just 60 percent of the usual food levels, as imports have been more than halved in just the last three years. The government also confiscates 50 percent of all locally produced food, further crippling an already-decimated economy and domestic production system.

People are starving in their own homes. It’s a slow crisis.

So what can the international community do? One, coordinate with local groups before sending supplies, Raffalli says (see below). Two, pressure local officials, especially if you live in the Caribbean, an area that stands to be massively affected not just by Venezuelan migrants but also by the spread of diseases like malaria, which has risen to levels not seen since the early 1960s in Venezuela. And third, listen to the people on the ground and raise awareness, says Raffalli. This isn’t a stereotypical eighteenth-century crisis, she says, it’s a modern one, and even in the heart of a bustling city like Caracas, “people are eating food from the garbage [and] starving in their homes,” she says. “It’s a slow crisis.”

In addition to her work on the ground in Caracas, Raffalli runs the U.S.-based 501(c)(3) organization Action for Solidarity. She also recommends the Texas-based Cuatro Por Venezuela and Ayuda Humanitaria para Venezuela in Florida.



Elizabeth Gonzalez and Holly K. Sonneland produced this podcast.