Hunger stabs at Venezuelans impoverished by crisis

Maracaibo (Venezuela) (AFP) –


The fish Juan Maurice is catching are so small they're best thrown into a frying pan. Even so, they won't fatten this out-of-work builder who has lost 16 kilograms (35 pounds) over the past two years.

Impoverished by Venezuela's crisis, Maurice, who now weighs 75 kilograms (165 pounds), is trying his luck by casting a net with his uncle in the brackish, polluted waters of northwestern Venezuela's Maracaibo Lake just to have anything to eat.

"One day I might be here, and the next I might be in the mountain looking for rabbits and iguanas," the 35-year-old explains to AFP. His drawn face looks much older than his years.

His net has 20 fish in it. They are of a type that can grow up to 30 centimeters (12 inches) in length but his are less than a third of that. He also snared a small blue crab and three slender, boney catfish that usually aren't eaten.

Maurice used to live well enough as a builder and welder in this region, Venezuela's industrial oil hub. "Before, my salary was enough to eat, save a little, decorate my home," he says, plucking the fish out.

But with Venezuela's economy collapsing to half of what it was in 2014, and with inflation forecast by the International Monetary Fund to reach 10 million percent this year, work dried up.

Even oil production, which accounts for 95 percent of the national budget, has all but stopped.

Through odd jobs, Maurice tries to earn enough to feed his seven children, but "they are all scrawny," he says.

Maurice is fishing in San Francisco, a town next to the vast lake. Its shores are blackened by oil constantly leaking out of wells.

"I don't know if these fish are edible or not. But given the situation we'll have to risk it, so we'll eat them," he says.

"I feel awful. We've never lived this before. It's chaos," he said.

- 'Nothing to eat' -

Marcy Chirinos is walking desolate streets in the center of Maracaibo city, population 3.6 million. It's days after the country suffered a nationwide blackout that was the worst in its history. For five days, darkness descended and looting erupted in Maracaibo. More than 500 shops were emptied.

"Now, there's nothing to eat," Chirinos says, her head covered with an old rag to protect herself from the sweltering sun.

A municipal cleaner, she earns the minimum wage, which today means the equivalent of $6 a month.

"It's just not possible to live like this. My clothes are dirty. We don't even have water to wash in, or money to buy detergent," she says.

But her biggest problem is the lack of food.

Very thin, she tries to do what she can to help feed her five grandchildren, but it's nearly impossible.

"If something is for sale, it's way too pricey. Rice, flour -- they only sell those for dollars ... But where am I going to find dollars?"

The looting has exacerbated an already desperate situation. Most of the city's stores remain shuttered.

"These clothes no longer fit me," Chirinos says, showing how baggy her worn pants are on her diminished frame. "Whatever we have is for the children. Each night I go to bed praying for a miracle from God."

- Desolation and desperation -

Ana Angulo is contemplating a line of closed stores in what used to be the bustling shopping heart of Maracaibo, shaking her white-haired head.

"Look at this emptiness," she almost whispers, sad.

In her 77 years she says she can never remember such penury.

"Hunger is giving me headaches," she says.

A little distance away, Jaime Romero, 31, is pushing his mother in an old wheelchair.

"We came out to see if someone had something to give us to eat," he says.