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Sick and starving, Venezuelan children stoke fear of a lost generation – and more violence

Amid Venezuela’s political and economic upheaval, millions of children are facing hunger, preventable diseases, lack of education and violence. Chronic poverty and food shortages drive kids and their families to desperation, whether sifting through garbage for scraps or joining a gang -- and facing brutal consequences. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports on Venezuela's lost generation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We continue now with our series Inside Venezuela.

    The once-wealthy South American country is now in economic freefall.

    Tonight, we explore what that crisis means for the millions of children, who are facing hunger, disease, and violence.

    With support from the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports on what it means to be a child today in Venezuela.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Six-year-old Winston should be in school. Instead, he and his older brother Jose are helping their father with what is now daily work, sifting through the trash at this garbage dump in Maracaibo, a major city in Western Venezuela.

    Jose Gutierrez says he used to sell coffee and cigarettes on the street, but because of hyperinflation projected this year to be as high as 500,000 percent, he kept losing money. So now, he spends his days searching for plastic to sell so he can buy food for his family.

  • Jose Gutierrez:

    Before, people could work and buy rice and flour with the salary. There was cash in the street. There was money to be made. Now it's the opposite. There's no money to make on the street.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Many neighborhoods in Venezuela have always been poor, but people here say they got by with help from the government. In the last couple years, they say things have changed.

    Gutierrez says the free box of food from the government only comes once a month, and only lasts the family around two days.

    In a nearby slum, Edward and his brother tell me they forgo school every day to go to the dump to look for food.

    What did you find in the trash?

    "I found a piece of cake," 12-year-old Edward tells me, "but it didn't sit well. I had a stomachache for a week."

    He says the food he got that time was bad, but that, most of the time, the food is good, so he keeps going back to the same place where they throw the rubbish to get food.

    In their slum, we saw signs of malnutrition everywhere, distended bellies from a lack of protein, stunted growth, diarrhea, as well as preventable diseases, like scabies.

    Children across Venezuela are facing a crisis from every angle, food, health, education, and violence, leading to fears of a lost generation and a bleak future for the country.

    One immediate impact? Classrooms across Venezuela are emptying out, as families leave or decide they can't afford the transportation, the uniforms, or enough food to send their children to school. And those who remain are often too hungry to learn.

  • Deyanira Vivas (through translator):

    I have had girls that have lower cognitive abilities and learning processes due to the lack of a proper diet. They have fallen asleep in the kindergarten area, and I mean in a very deep sleep.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Teachers are also leaving. Venezuela has lost as much as 40 percent of its 370,000 teachers in the last three years.

    At this school in Maracaibo, we sat down with two teachers who remain, 55-year-old Deyanira Vivas and 37-year-old Emalu Duran. They say 250 students are enrolled in this girls school up to grade six, but only around 60 actually attend.

    Why aren't they coming to school?

  • Deyanira Vivas (through translator):

    Because of the reality we're living in. Many aren't coming because they aren't getting enough to eat. And how do we know? Because the parents have told us.

    They say, teacher, I'm sorry, but I can't bring my daughter in today because I don't have a way to get her to school. Many times, we go on foot, and the girls haven't eaten yet.

  • Emalu Duran (through translator):

    For example, I'm also a parent, but my child is not here today. She is in the fifth grade.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Your own daughter isn't coming to school here? Why?

  • Emalu Duran (through translator):

    She's not coming because we live very far from here. And, sometimes, there is no breakfast, so I don't bring her in like that.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    So, I was going to ask the question, what is the future for a child in Venezuela? But now I learn that you have three children in Venezuela. So, what is their future?

  • Emalu Duran (through translator):

    I don't see a future.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    One organization trying to combat the hunger crisis and much more is Caracas Mi Convive, loosely translated as Caracas Living Together, which sponsors community-run food banks like this one in a slum of Caracas.

    Each day, children line up for a hot meal, just one of thousands of food banks that have sprung up across the country in the past few years. Santiago Garcia of Mi Convive says they're not even close to meeting the need, but it's a crucial first step.

  • Santiago Garcia:

    The children that do not eat are the children that cannot develop Their full potential, right?

    During the first years of development, It's fundamental for little kids to have enough food to develop all their brain functions and to be able to learn, to develop good social interactions.

    So, the problems that we're having right now in Venezuela with the food are one of the biggest setbacks that we have for fetal development.

    So what do we have here?

  • Marcia Biggs:

    We went back to Mi Convive's office, where Santiago showed us some drawings made by kids in the community aged 7 to 10. They were first asked to draw anything they wanted. The drawings were bright and colorful, idyllic images from the imagination of a child.

  • Santiago Garcia:

    And we asked them to draw the thing they didn't like about the place in which they lived.

    And here, well, you have a house, of course, but you have a gun here. This is a rifle, a AR-15. It really surprised me that the kid knew the brand of the rifle. I didn't know that, for example.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Venezuela has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and Santiago says this combination of a lack of food and education, and pervasive violence, mean children often end up with only bad options.

  • Santiago Garcia:

    What will happen in 10 or 12 years with the little kids that grew up in this situation? When you're living in a crisis, you are constantly living on the precipice right now, like, if you don't have any food to eat tomorrow, your priority is finding that food now.

    And, well, the fastest way to obtain that food for tomorrow is probably joining a gang.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    And that's exactly what many do, including 23-year-old Orlando Antonio. Today, he works in an upscale Bakery in Caracas, thanks to Santiago's help.

    But he grew up a world away, in one of the toughest slums in Caracas. He never graduated from high school.

    Did most of the kids that you ran around with stay in school?

  • Orlando Antonio (through translator):

    No, they also dropped out. Some of them are dead now. From my group, there's only three or four left. Most of them were killed.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    How? Why were they killed?

  • Orlando Antonio (through translator):

    Because they were wanted by the police, and when they find someone they're looking for, they kill them.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    In 2015, the Venezuelan government responded to rising violence with a policy known as Mano Dura, or Heavy Hand, sending special police units into violent areas to crack down on gangs.

    It's credited that policy with decreasing violence. But, last year, the United Nations released a damning report on the extrajudicial killings of young men by these special units.

  • Orlando Antonio (through translator):

    Every time I came down the street, the police officers mistreated me, they hit me. And I grew up thinking about that, thinking about what they'd done to me, and how I could get revenge.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    So what made you want to leave that life?

  • Orlando Antonio (through translator):

    My mom.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Your mom.

  • Orlando Antonio (through translator):

    My mom.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Why? What about your mom?

  • Orlando Antonio (through translator):

    She was so worried about me. You could see it in her face. She was even losing weight.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    But many more do not make it out. In a village outside of Caracas, another mother, Zuleica Perez, makes an extra cup of coffee every morning and gingerly places it next to the photo of her son Jose.

  • Zuleica Perez (through translator):

    It's a way to keep his memory alive, and I feel good about this. I feel like he's present, like he's here drinking his coffee.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    In January of last year, she says Jose was at his home when special forces burst in, demanding information about a car theft. Within moments, he was dead, shot in the chest. There was no official statement, but Zuleica says this video was posted on Facebook by police officers claiming that Jose was part of an armed band that had fired on them first.

    That video was later taken down, and reportedly came from another earlier incident not involving her son. But Zuleica says she then received another video, this one clearly depicting her son sitting unarmed and begging for his life.

  • Zuleica Perez (through translator):

    Maybe that's what breaks my heart. What was my son thinking about in those last minutes, knowing he had no way out, and without having done anything?

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Jose left behind his mother, his two brothers, and a 9-year-old daughter, Valentina, who Zuleica says likes to visit her dad at the cemetery.

  • Zuleica Perez (through translator):

    We never thought this tragedy would happen to us. A tragedy can happen to anyone. And in this country, tragedies happen.

    But the important thing is, we don't know why.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Back at the slum in Maracaibo, in the country's west, as we were wrapping up our day, we stumbled upon yet another scene of desperation, dozens of children lined up, empty bowls in hand, waiting for a food bank to open.

    The food eventually arrived, rice and beans, paid for by an American donor, and handed out by his Venezuelan son. Each child waited his or her turn, and then ate, one more meal for these children and a country in need.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Marcia Biggs in Maracaibo, Venezuela.

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