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Sick and starving, Venezuelan children stoke fear of a lost generation – and more violence
Venezuela is in political, economic and humanitarian crisis. With its massive oil reserves, it used to be among the world’s wealthiest countries, but its economy has since collapsed. For residents opposed to the socialist regime of President Nicolas Maduro, the 2019 rise of opposition leader Juan Guaido offered a moment of hope that has yet to deliver. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.
Tonight, we begin a series, Inside Venezuela, a country in political, economic and humanitarian crisis.
Venezuela was once one of the wealthiest countries in the world, in large part due to its massive oil reserves. In 1999, Hugo Chavez became president, and he used that oil wealth to create a socialist state.
But since his death in 2013, under his successor, President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's economy has collapsed.
With support from the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.
This is you when you were little. Oh, my gosh.
Fifty-three-year-old Nelly Larco remembers a Venezuela of an earlier time, one filled with birthday parties, confirmations, and Christmas presents.
Nelly Larco (through translator):
It was a land of opportunity for an immigrant like her. She moved to Venezuela from her native Ecuador when she was still a teenager, and worked as a housekeeper.
I say this with huge pride, because I came here working, and that's how I earned a living, and I found a way to improve myself. And I'm so attached to and so thankful to Venezuela.
This country gave her a life and a family. Nelly's three daughters were able to go to school, and her eldest, Marielena, became a lawyer and a professor.
But, for years, they have been struggling to get by, living in one of the many slums surrounding the sprawling capital of Caracas.
Do you have running water?
There's never enough water, enough propane for cooking, enough food to eat. For more than two decades, Nelly has watched her adopted country slip away, and, with it, her dream of a better life for her family.
I'm very frustrated and very angry to think that, because of a few people, we have lost Venezuela.
For her, the decline began with Hugo Chavez, the former soldier who in 1999 became president, and it has continued under his successor, Nicolas Maduro.
Since 2013, the country has been in freefall by nearly every available metric, a cratering economy, skyrocketing violence, tanking oil production, a crippling gas shortage.
Millions have already fled the country, creating the second largest refugee crisis in the world. And for the millions who remain, including many children, hunger has made them desperate.
What I never imagined is that we'd reach this extent. I never imagined that I'd see my people in Venezuela eating from the garbage. That infuriates me. That infuriates me, because this is a rich country.
This time last year, Nelly, Marielena and many others thought that Venezuela was on the precipice of change.
In January, then-34-year-old Juan Guaido, a civil engineer who'd just been elected to lead the country's Parliament, was declared interim president by members of the opposition, after President Maduro won a second term in an election widely criticized as illegitimate.
Guaido promised new elections, and nearly 60 countries around the world, including the U.S., threw their support behind him, as did thousands of protesters in the streets of Venezuela, including Nelly and Marielena.
We're the majority, and that's why I keep fighting. The truth is that my hopes are actually more in God than Guaido. But we have to help him. I feel that he's like an angel that God put here to get out of this insanity.
Marielena says she thought the protests would force Maduro's hand.
Marielena Caraballo (through translator):
I sincerely thought that taking to the streets would put pressure on Maduro to leave the presidency, and we would somehow be able to have free elections, which is what we want.
Then on April 30 came a critical moment. Guaido called on the military to help him overthrow Maduro in a coup.
Juan Guaido (through translator):
We're speaking to the armed forces, and, today, it is clear that the armed forces are with the people of Venezuela and not the dictator.
That was the call both Nelly and Marielena had been waiting for.
My mother woke me up and said: "Dear, the soldiers have risen up."
Suddenly, I was totally awake, and I thought, the moment has come. Finally, the military has found the necessary courage and it is with the people.
But Guaido had miscalculated. Only a few soldiers joined him. The vast majority remained loyal to Maduro, and then the protests turned violent.
National Guard troops moved on protesters, ramming them with armored vehicles and opening fire. A young woman from Marielena's school died. Another friend from her neighborhood was wounded.
For Marielena and for thousands of others who had spent years waiting for this moment, it was a bitter disappointment and a stark reminder of what they could lose.
Then I said, that's it. What are you waiting for? To be killed yourself and leave your family without any help because they killed you?
So, you had all of this hope that things would change. Did Juan Guaido fail you?
Yes, I do think Juan Guaido failed. And I'm not sure whether it was intentional, or it was because maybe, well, he's a human being, too. But the truth is that all Venezuelans have put our faith in him.
I met Juan Guaido at his office in Caracas, and I put that question to him.
We have spoken to some opposition supporters, people who came out to protest, who are very, very frustrated by the process and by you and the progress. Do you think you promised too much, too soon?
Juan Guiado (through translator):
Certainly, the management of expectations is something important to manage in Venezuela, especially when we have no water, no electricity, and our children are dying of starvation.
So it's natural that we feel frustrated for not having achieved change already, when we feel that we have the strength, that we have the majority, that we count on international support.
So, the first thing, as a leader, as the acting president at this time, is to understand the legitimate claim of our people and do what's necessary to address those just claims of Venezuelans who need change in Venezuela today.
But how Guaido achieves that change remains unclear.
We were there last month when National Guard troops blocked him from entering the National Assembly to be reelected speaker, while Maduro supporters inside elected their own speaker without a formal vote.
Guaido came back two days later, broke through and was sworn in again by his own supporters. But, since then, he's been physically blocked from entering the Assembly to carry out Parliament's business. Two weeks later, he snuck out of the country, embarking on a world tour to shore up support abroad.
President Donald Trump:
Joining us in the gallery is the true and legitimate president of Venezuela, Juan Guaido.
He even attended the State of the Union address.
But after that warm reception, he returned home to a cold reality. At the airport, he was mobbed by President Maduro's supporters, a reminder of who remains in the presidential palace and in control of the military.
And in the past few months, Maduro has shown he's willing to adapt to keep it that way. He's announced new parliamentary elections this year, in an attempt to consolidate his hold on the legislature.
In the wake of U.S. sanctions on his government, including on the struggling state-run oil industry, he's invited Russian and Chinese companies in to help ramp up production.
In another major departure from Hugo Chavez, he's also relaxed strict import and export controls, and even allowed U.S. dollars into the country. That's led to a small boom among some restaurants and stores in cities like Caracas.
A year ago, you wouldn't have seen in a shop like this prices listed in dollars. They were officially prohibited. But, here, you're seeing 75 cents for a bag of rice. You're also seeing a lot more imported food, for those who can afford it.
And yet many cannot. At this neighborhood in Caracas, where residents typically support the government, we found people fed up with the economic situation.
Woman (through translator):
Venezuela was a blessed country that nowadays is terribly managed. The people in charge say they love us. That's a lie. They don't love the people.
Man (through translator):
It's not like before. That was beautiful. There was enough money. But now imagine how hard the situation it is.
There, I met William Yaguaran, a political organizer at a university in Caracas and a true believer in Chavez's socialist revolution.
At his home, he showed me the free box of food that comes monthly from the government.
For William, social programs like this one were of the many reasons he was first drawn to Chavez so many years ago.
William Yaguaran (through translator):
He did what he said he was going to do, and that's what made him connect with the population and the youth at that time. And that hooked me too.
Is Maduro doing what he said he would do?
He tries, but the structure doesn't help him. The people around him aren't helping him.
But isn't he in control of the structure?
Well, now you're asking a very difficult question. He's in power, but the problem is, his decisions don't get executed.
In addition to corruption and mismanagement, William also blames U.S. sanctions for hurting the economy, and says that, regardless of who's at fault, he could never bring himself to support the opposition.
Do you think the opposition cares about the poor people?
William Yaguaran (through translator):
No, they have never cared. They have never cared for us at all.
Back at Nelly and Marielena's, there's debate over how to move forward. Marielena is tired of hearing the same things from Guaido about how they're making progress, despite what she sees.
Time has passed, and nothing's happened. We're still waiting, and we're still hearing, we're doing well.
Millions have given up and already left Venezuela, but Marielena says she'd miss her family too much, especially her niece. And she's afraid of having to start over from scratch in a new country.
Her mother, Nelly, knows too well how hard that can be. So, for her, the choice is simple, if not easy.
Nelly Larco (through translator):
I'm indebted to Venezuela, because Venezuela gave me everything. It's given me it all: a family, my daughters. It's the least I can do.
Staying at home, watching what's happening and blaming someone because he tried but couldn't do it? No. I prefer to go out and fight by the side of the person trying to do something. And every time Guaido calls me, or whoever is there at the time, they can call me to go out to the streets to support democracy. I'm going to be there. I'm going to go out.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Marcia Biggs in Caracas.
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Marcia Biggs is a special correspondent for PBS NewsHour, specializing in coverage of the Middle East, where she has over a decade of experience. Recent highlights include a four-part series “Inside Yemen,” as well as in-depth reports on the battle against ISIS in Iraq and the human rights violations taking place against those fleeing Mosul. For her coverage for PBS of Iraq, Biggs has received a Gracie Allen Award, a First Place National Headliner Award, and a New York Festivals World Medal. Most recently, she was named the 2018 Marie Colvin Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the Newswomen’s Club of New York. Before her work with the NewsHour, Biggs reported for Al Jazeera English, Fox News Channel, CNN, and ABC News. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, she received her Masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the American University of Beirut and currently resides in New York City.
Frank Carlson is a general assignment producer at the PBS NewsHour, where he's been making video since 2010. @frankncarlson
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