CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Valerie Torres’ mother has been trying to shield her from the worst of Venezuela’s protracted crisis — the deadly protests, the sick begging for help, the malnourished children with bulging ribs. At school, their teachers don’t even bring up the subject.
But with her 10th birthday approaching this month, the girl is perceptive beyond her years. She knows her fourth grade classmate lied to her teacher about leaving a book at home when he was actually saving to buy it; that neighbors, friends and even her grandmother have fled the country in search of a better life; that her mother brings less groceries home.
“Inflation is terrible. A candy is 3 bolivars. A candy!” Valerie said incredulously, recalling when it used to cost half a bolivar, Venezuela’s official but worthless currency, which has been practically replaced by the US dollar. “And a dollar used to cost about 5 or 7 bolivars. Now it’s 23. I can’t buy anything anymore.”
Valerie belongs to a generation of Venezuelan children, who know only a country in crisis, whose lives have so far been spent amid hardship and under the rule of a single president, Nicolás Maduro, who took over the reins a decade ago on Sunday as his mentor , Hugo Chávez, died of cancer.
The succession coincided with a sharp drop in the price of oil, the resource that boosted the country’s economy and funded social programs under Chávez. This, coupled with government mismanagement under both presidents, plunged the South American nation into the ongoing crisis.
Many children are forced to eat nutrient-poor foods or skip meals, wave goodbye to migrant parents, and sit in crumbling classrooms for lessons that barely prepare them for addition and subtraction. The consequences could be long lasting.
About three quarters of Venezuelans live on less than $1.90 a day – the international benchmark for extreme poverty. The minimum wage, paid in bolivars, is the equivalent of $5 a month, up from $30 in April.
None of these wages are enough to support a person, let alone a family. An independent group of economists that tracks price increases and other metrics estimated that a basic shopping cart for a family of four cost $372 in December.
This harsh reality has spilled over into the classroom, and teachers are stepping out to protest their meager salaries, which some supplement by moonlighting as tutors, selling baked goods, or stripping at clubs. Thousands have quit altogether, and many of those who are still teaching are doing so in facilities plagued by pests, mold, dirt and stagnant water that attracts mosquitoes.
Kevin Paredes, a 12-year-old fifth grader, attends one such public school across from the home he shares with his parents and six siblings in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. Last year the school was painted orange and light green, but work is ongoing to repair cave walls and other structural problems.
Kevin started memorizing the multiplication table in third grade. The teachers should have inducted him into the division that same year, but they haven’t taught it yet.
He ended up staying home for several weeks because his family couldn’t afford notebooks and was just returning to class. Sitting on the sidewalk in front of the school, he enthusiastically described a current school project that he enjoyed: “I’m going to plant a pepper.”
Kevin’s parents, who both sew for a living, only make enough to buy three or four groceries at a time instead of in bulk like they did a few years ago. Less money is coming in because customers are focusing on buying essentials, not new clothes.
His father, 41-year-old Henry Paredes, immigrated to Ecuador in 2018 to work banana harvesting and earned enough to support the family at home. But he returned to Venezuela after just eight months, noticing Kevin’s growing anger and sadness at their breakup. His little daughters didn’t recognize him when he came home.
“One lasts, but little kids don’t,” he said of the hunger he feels when he skips meals to feed his kids. “They ask for bread, bananas.”
Through a nationwide network of ruling party neighborhood organizers, the government distributes dry goods packages to families for less than half a dollar each month. Those able to make another payment of roughly the same amount can purchase chicken or mortadella from trucks that turn up around the neighborhood from time to time.
The United Nations World Food Program estimated in 2020 that a third of Venezuelans were not getting enough to eat and needed help. The following year, she began offering food aid to Venezuelans through schools, reaching 450,000 people in eight states in January.
Laura Melo, director of the program for Venezuela, said the schools where it operates have seen enrollments increase by up to 30%. The organization is working on renovating school canteens to be able to offer hot meals to students.
dr Huniades Urbina, a pediatrician and board member of Venezuela’s National Academy of Medicine, said some children underperform in school because they come to school weak and hungry after not eating for 12 hours or more. He added that the growth of children born during the crisis was stunted by around 5 to 6 centimeters (2 to 2.4 inches) on average due to poor nutrition.
“We’re not going to have that 1.80 or 1.90 tall Miss Venezuela anymore,” Urbina said, referring to the country’s famous enthusiasm for beauty pageants. “We can end up having a thin and small generation, but the problem is that this brain … isn’t going to have the development of a child that’s getting enough protein and calories in the long run.”
The number of children born during the crisis is unknown because the government stopped publishing birth figures after 2012, a year when about 620,000 newborns were born.
The crisis has pushed more than 7 million Venezuelans to leave their home country.
Valerie, the accomplished, brave fourth grader, hopes to one day join them and has made up her mind to go to Miami. Her dreams are to be a model, own a Ferrari and live in a mansion. But she cannot ignore the present and has many questions.
“Sometimes she’s like, ‘Why don’t people like Maduro?'” said Francys Brito, mother of Valerie and another girl, 15. “Well, thank God you have it all, but there are a lot of people who don’t have that .”
Looking ahead to the girls’ future, Brito said the family paid $100 a month to attend a private school, where they can benefit from stricter teachers and a stronger curriculum than is typical of the public system. What’s left of her husband’s income from a casino job and side hustles goes towards groceries and other necessities.
“I hope and strive for my daughters to be independent, productive, and most importantly, happy,” Brito said.