CARACAS, Venezuela—In a country that once was rich, but where people are beginning to starve, few animals are safe. One morning in August at the metropolitan zoo in the torrid city of Maracaibo, workers were shocked to find the bones of a buffalo and some wild pigs inside their cages with clear signs of mutilation. Thieves allegedly stole the meat to eat what they could and sell the rest on the local market.
In west Caracas, at the zoo of Caricuao district, the same sort of thing happened. Watchmen found the bones and offal of a black horse inside its enclosure. Apparently the perpetrators only took the edible parts of the animal.
Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro knows people are going hungry in his country, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. He keeps announcing new stopgap measures, but his words don’t carry a lot of nutritional weight.
One of the latest programs was the so-called plan conejo (rabbit plan), a failed attempt to start rabbit farms all over the capital in order to substitute the proteins that come from unaffordable chicken and even more unaffordable beef.
“We want people to stop seeing these [rabbits] as pets and start seeing them as what they really are, two kilograms of meat full of protein,” declared Minister of Urban Agriculture Freddy Bernal.
But, indeed, Venezuelans traditionally do see rabbits as pets and not food, so in areas where the government brought rabbits to start farms people started adopting them, giving them funny nicknames, and even embellishing their long ears with colorful bows. No question of eating the little dears after that.
“What we really need is a solution, not those crazy measures the government is inventing,” says Natalí, whose life is a daily grind to find the food to feed herself and her children.
Every Saturday, Natalí wakes up earlier than the average Venezuelan. She dresses in a hurry and whenever she can she feeds something to her sons and daughters and tells them to wait patiently for her return. The kids, already used to this routine, wave from the improvised front door of their shanty, then look forward anxiously to what she might bring back.
Natalí takes a four-wheel-drive car, then a bus, and then the train from Antímano to municipal Coche Market in south Caracas where, for the last three and a half months, she has made her pilgrimage to dig through the garbage left by the vendors—trying to find a half-rotted vegetable, a piece of fruit, or, if luck is on her side, chicken skin to take back home and feed her children.
Things were not always this difficult for Natalí and her family.
Five years ago in Venezuela, the charismatic Commander Hugo Chávez, president and leader of the so-called socialist revolution of the 21st century, distributed widely the abundant revenues produced by Venezuela’s oil production. With the prices of the barrel of oil hovering around $100 back then, no Venezuelan could have predicted the hard times yet to come.
That was when, together with her husband and five kids, Natalí decided to move to the capital looking for some of those riches the socialist leader spread among the poorest. But when he died in 2013 things took an unexpected and for her a very unfortunate turn.
With the arrival to power of Nicolás Maduro, Chavez’s successor, Venezuela’s situation deteriorated quickly. Out of control inflation and severe food shortages led to 120 days of protests and general unrest in the nation.
It was in this atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty, precisely, that Natalí’s family was about to receive a new member and lose an old one.
She was pregnant again. Her husband, an unemployed builder, could not withstand the pressure of feeding six kids, so he decided to abandon them.
Now, with six kids and unable to work, Natalí had to make what she recalls was the hardest choice ever: to send her older son to work at the landfill in west Caracas.
“This is something that breaks my soul,” she says through tears. “I want my boy to go to school, to have a different future, but I cannot afford it. How can I buy a notebook? The oldest, he’s a good kid, he helps me a lot. It’s very painful to send him to dig in the garbage just to be able to eat.”
Sadly this story is not unusual in today’s Venezuela. The high inflation rates and food shortages that followed Chavez’s death have made many basic products unaffordable for 80 percent of the nation that has been plunged into poverty.
In the capital, it is common to bump into individuals or even families that, like Natalí’s, live on the garbage. Around Sabana Grande Boulevard many families with kids watch avidly over the piles of garbage outside the restaurants, waiting for the leftovers. Some of these families are not homeless, some of them even have jobs, but their incomes are not enough to eat.
Right next to a dumpster outside a shopping mall, four families wait for in the afternoon for the moment when the restaurant owners take out the leftovers. Three mothers, seven kids and 28-year-old Luis Miguel, the only man, eagerly search the container every day hoping to find something good to eat or to sell.
When Luis Miguel talks, you can see the shame his condition causes him, but at the same time the stoicism he has assumed in his determination to feed his children.
“I used to work in the metrocable in San Agustín [a cable car service]. With my salary I was able to buy enough food for my family and I even dreamed about building a proper house for us. But then it seems like things went crazy. I got fired and the little money I earned doing small jobs was not enough to feed my family, so I started doing this.
“In the beginning, it was just two days a week, but lately things have gotten so rough that I decided to stay here the whole time. If I move, someone else will take over my spot. I have even seen people fighting with knives for a dumpster like mine. At least here I can find something to feed my children.”
According to a recent study by Cáritas, a catholic NGO that helps the poorest sectors of society, five to six children die in Venezuela from malnutrition every day, and the toll may reach as high as 280,000 in coming years if these trends continue.
Meanwhile, the secretary of the union of workers in zoos and national parks, Marlene Sifontes, says the situation in the zoos is far worse than the headlines have suggested. It’s not just a question of animals being eaten, it’s the question of whether the animals themselves will be able to eat at all. Some animals are dying from malnutrition and some others are dying because of the lack of medicines for the treatments they require.
The most emblematic case: Ruperta the Elephant. She is one of the oldest animals in the zoo of Caricuao, but here emeritus status could not prevent her from suffering the negative impact of the economic crisis. Much like Natalí and Luis Miguel and their families, and indeed like most Venezuelans, Ruperta the Elephant is going hungry.