Pain is rarely worse than when it’s needless. That’s something young Daniela Chacon and much of Venezuela feels now.
Daniela’s eyes, peeking out between her pink woolen hat and surgical mask, drip tears of extreme pain. She can still feel the leg she had amputated a day earlier: a common syndrome known as “phantom limb.”
Yet this life-changing loss, one that causes her to scream as the doctors change her dressing, was needless.
Years earlier, before a government-made economic meltdown crippled the healthcare system, an early diagnosis and meager amount of chemotherapy would have been readily available in the city of Valencia and would probably have stopped Daniela’s cancer, preventing any amputation, according to her doctor.
But in today’s Venezuela, nothing can be relied upon. And so the doctors had to remove the cancerous leg of a 14-year-old girl to save the rest of her.
So much of this crisis is human made. In short, Hugo Chavez, the late president, tried to found a socialist utopia, funded by high oil prices, which had the state run everything, and banished capitalism. But when oil prices collapsed, so did the dream, and now Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, is presiding over a country where the government tells people how much they must pay for basic foodstuffs while failing to keep their state-provided wages high enough to buy that same food. Maduro has raised the country’s minimum wage six times in the last year.
Crisis in Venezuela
The government also intimidates and restricts the media here, taking CNN’s sister network CNN en Español off the air. We had to go in undercover to report, and much of our work was done covertly to avoid arrest.
We saw how basic life for ordinary Venezuelans has fallen far and fast. It’s now common to see piles of trash accumulating on the street picked through by the hungry – people who only a few years ago would never have considered the scarcity of food as a daily problem.
Because Venezuela was not historically poor. But it certainly is now.
For the weakest and most vulnerable like Daniela, the pain is most acute. Doctors working pro bono in this private clinic took the drastic step of amputating the leg, fearing the osteosarcoma cancer in her tibia would otherwise spread.
Dr. Ruben Limas, changing her dressing painstakingly with his wife Rosa Silva Marthez, also a doctor, said: “It is a dramatic situation as a father, and as a doctor, to have to amputate a child’s limb when she is only 14. The survival rate in any Latin American country today would be about 70 percent, but because we lack the equipment to make early detection, it’s 30 percent.”
Daniela’s eyes come alight when she talks of her main passion, language, and the app she found to help her learn English. But she is still struggling with the permanent change that happened just the day before.
“It feels strange because I feel a leg that isn’t there,” she says.
She recounts the months of suffering she endured until she got a diagnosis. She describes how her parents had to go to the capital, Caracas, to look for medicine, and how when they managed to find it, it was so expensive.
Her thin frame is a sign of the struggle she has already endured.
Daniela was treated in the cold, clean and tidy ward of a private clinic with staff volunteering to help those most acutely in need.
Elsewhere in Valencia, a city two hours’ drive from Caracas, the situation is even more bleak.
In the main public hospital, we are allowed access, albeit briefly, to see shelves empty of basic medication, appalling hygiene that medics believe has caused infections in the hospital to rise and patients who have brought their own medication.
One man – his chest injured in the recent protests – has a crude tube draining his wound into a cut-down water bottle.
A young anesthesiologist, Dr. Ricardo Rubio, says: “There is no precedent to the lack of medicine, the lack of medical supplies, the deterioration of the hospitals, the deterioration of the way they treat doctors.”
Nurses chime in, complaining about the lack of basic but vital items like gloves and masks.
Drive through the streets of Valencia and you pass signs of a society in rapid collapse. On one main road, the body of a young man still twitches after he was shot. Around him, police and pedestrians mill, listlessly, as if the event is mundane.
Drive into the slums and the more acute nature of the lack of basic utilities emerges.
The Dias family live next to the spillage of a sewer. Curtains draped across doorways of their cinder-block home hide some of their world from the street outside.
Inside, they make candies from coconuts to sell and to feed themselves. It is sticky and grimy, but the day we visit is special: The family has rice for the first time in a week.
Gayla Salazar, 30, explains the excitement of her daughters. Normally they get yucca for breakfast, but they don’t much care for the root, so even plain rice is a welcome change.
“This is our situation,” Salazar says. “I work for myself and it’s hard for me to get other food. Things are expensive.”
Denis Ester Dias, 58, the family matriarch, adds: “Sugar – it’s too expensive, and the coconut I bought for 1,500 bolivares.” At the exchange rate we saw on the black market, that’s only about 33 cents, but in real life for the Dias family and others, it’s astronomically expensive.
Wages simply can’t keep up. “My husband isn’t working,” Dias says, “and what he does earn (when he is working) isn’t sufficient – 20,000 bolivares a week.” That’s about 13 coconuts.
Dias remembers a time when life was better, but for her that was 30 years ago. For her children and especially her grandchildren, this is all they know.
The littlest member of the family, three-year-old Jennifer, demonstrates this by proudly saying her family has pineapples. She goes to the refrigerator, opens the door and reveals it contains two of the aging fruits … and nothing else.
Jennifer says she likes rice a lot, while her older sister Daniela concedes she misses having meat and pasta.
Salazar adds: “I grab rice and a few eggs for the girls. When I work more, I try to get them more food. But everything is so expensive. One carton of milk is 35,000 bolivares.” That’s over 10 days’ work for the girls’ grandfather.
Venezuela’s government has repeatedly said its problems have been exaggerated by hostile foreign media. It says the drop in oil prices and actions of opposition-friendly tycoons have added to their problems.
For the Dias family, food isn’t the only necessity in painfully short supply. The house has no running water, so all water – to drink, to cook, to wash – must be brought in. And of course it is expensive, too.
Dias opens the lid of a blue plastic barrel to reveal about an inch of water inside.
“The [water] trucks haven’t gone by” for a while, she laments. “Smaller containers are hundreds of bolivares, but this,” she says, pointing to the barrel, “is 2,000 bolivares.” Just under a day’s work for her husband.
The mathematics seem surreal, almost unfathomable. Their need is so much, prices are so high and work is so limited. But for this family, enduring dirt, hunger and poverty hourly, the impact is very real.