U.S. imposes more sanctions on Venezuela amid humanitarian aid fight

A Venezuelan flag waves above the corporate logo of Banesco bank at one of their office complexes in Caracas, Venezuela May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States imposed fresh sanctions on Venezuela on Friday, targeting six Venezuelan government officials tied to President Nicolas Maduro, in its latest move to squeeze the embattled leader.

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Treasury cited the battle over humanitarian assistance and blamed the six current or former security officials, who it said controlled groups that blocked aid from reaching people in the Latin American country.

“We are sanctioning members of Maduro’s security forces in response to the reprehensible violence, tragic deaths, and unconscionable torching of food and medicine destined for sick and starving Venezuelans,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said after deadly violence blocked humanitarian aid from reaching Venezuela over the weekend.

The United States “will continue to target Maduro loyalists prolonging the suffering of the victims of this man-made humanitarian crisis,” Mnuchin added.

Friday’s action is the second set of sanctions this week, after the United States on Monday targeted four Venezuelan state governors allied with Maduro. Washington on Monday also called on allies to freeze the assets of state-owned oil company PDVSA.

U.S. sanctions block any assets the individuals control in the United States and bars U.S. entities from doing any business or financial transactions with them.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. to deliver over 200 tons of aid to Venezuelan border

Sacks containing humanitarian aid are pictured at a warehouse near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

MUNICH (Reuters) – U.S. military aircraft are expected to deliver more than 200 tons of humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan border in Colombia, with the shipment likely to take place on Saturday, a U.S. official said on Friday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. State Department planned to make an announcement about the shipment on Friday but provided no further details. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. special envoy on Venezuela last week said the aid effort was being coordinated with the opposition team but said the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has overseen an economic collapse in the oil-rich South American country that has left millions struggling to buy food and medicines and has fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An aid convoy supplied by the United States and Colombia arrived in the Colombian border town of Cucuta last week, where it is being held in warehouses. Maduro has refused to let supplies in.

Self-declared president Juan Guaido, the opposition leader, told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23.

Guaido invoked constitutional provisions to declare himself interim president last month, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham. Most Western countries, including the United States and many of Venezuela’s neighbors, have recognized Guaido as the legitimate head of state.

Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China and control of Venezuelan state institutions including the military.

Seeking to strengthen support for Guaido, the United States has said it will try to channel aid to Venezuela via Colombia and possibly Brazil.

Maduro has called the aid a U.S.-orchestrated show and denies any crisis. However, opposition member Gustavo Tarre has said the sole aim is to ease “the suffering of Venezuelans” and has denied any political, economic or military motive. [nL1N2090UC]

(Reporting By Idrees Ali; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Venezuelan opposition envoy urges foreign help to get aid in

Venezuelans line up as they wait for a free lunch at the "Divina Providencia" migrant shelter outskirts of Cucuta, on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, Colombia February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Luc Cohen and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Venezuelan opposition’s envoy to the United States accused the government of President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday of blocking humanitarian aid to the country and urged the international community to help open “thousands of windows” to let assistance in.

Carlos Vecchio, opposition leader Juan Guaido’s representative in Washington, spoke to an international aid conference hosted at the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington as a deadlock persisted in delivering aid to the crisis-stricken South American country.

Guaido invoked constitutional provisions last month to declare himself interim president, arguing that Maduro’s re-election last year was a sham.

Most Western countries, including the United States and many of Venezuela’s neighbors, have recognized Guaido as the country’s legitimate head of state, but Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as control of Venezuelan state institutions including the military.

Guaido told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23, setting the stage for a showdown with Maduro.

“They are blocking humanitarian aid that’s being sent,” Vecchio told the conference, which was attended by diplomats and representatives from dozens of countries. “We must open thousands of windows to bring humanitarian aid to Venezuela … Here we are creating an international coalition to bring in food and medicine.”

Lester Toledo, the opposition’s humanitarian aid coordinator, recounted an incident in 2016 when protesters marched to the border with Colombia where aid was being held up.

“That’s exactly what we’re going to do next Saturday,” he told the conference, suggesting how aid might make its way into Venezuela. “With people, people and more people working peacefully.”

Maduro has called the aid a U.S.-orchestrated show and denies there is an economic crisis, despite a widespread lack of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

But Gustavo Tarre, the opposition’s OAS representative, insisted the only objective is “to relieve the suffering of Venezuelans” and that there no political, economic or military motives.

Last week, the United Nations warned against politicizing aid in Venezuela after the United States accused Maduro of preventing the delivery of food and medicine.

An aid convoy supplied by the United States and Colombia arrived in the Colombian border town of Cucuta last week, where it is being held in warehouses.

The United States has said it will try to channel aid to Venezuela, via Colombia and possibly Brazil.

Elliott Abrams, Washington’s special envoy on Venezuela, said last week the aid effort was being coordinated with Guaido’s team but that the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

Maduro has overseen an economic collapse that has left millions struggling for food and fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An estimated 3 million Venezuelans have left the oil-rich OPEC country since 2015, some 800,000 of whom have ended up in Colombia.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and James Dalgleish)

Starving girl shows impact of Yemen war, economic collapse

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

HAJJAH, Yemen (Reuters) – Displaced by war, starving and living under a tree, 12-year-old Fatima Qoba weighed just 10kg when she was carried into a Yemeni malnutrition clinic.

“All the fat reserves in her body have been used up, she is left only with bones,” Makiah al-Aslami, a doctor and head of the clinic in northwest Yemen. “She has the most extreme form of malnutrition.”

Qoba’s slide into starvation is typical of what is happening in much of Yemen, where war and economic collapse have driven around 10 million people to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

Aslami said she is expecting more and more malnutrition cases to come through her door. This month she is treating more than 40 pregnant women with severe malnutrition.

“So in the coming months I expect I will have 43 underweight children,” she said.

She said that since the end of 2018, 14 deaths from malnutrition had occurred at her clinic alone.

Qoba, her 10 siblings and father were forced from their home near the border with Saudi Arabia and forced to live under a tree, Qoba’s older sister, also called Fatima, told Reuters.

She said they were fleeing bombardment from the Saudi-led coalition, which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after the Houthi-movement ousted it from power in the capital Sanaa in 2014.

“We don’t have money to get food. All we have is what our neighbors and relatives give us,” the sister said. Their father, in his 60s, is unemployed. “He sits under the tree and doesn’t move.”  

“If we stayed here and starved no one would know about us. We don’t have a future,” she said.

After trying two other hospitals which could not help, a relative found the money to transport Qoba to the clinic in Houthi-controlled Aslam, one of Yemen’s poorest districts with high malnutrition levels.

Lying on green hospital sheets, Qoba’s skin is papery, her eyes huge and her skeletal frame encased in a loose orange dress. A health worker feeds her a pale mush from a bowl.

Aslami said the girl needed a month of treatment to build up her body and mind.

The United Nations is trying to implement a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah, where most of Yemen’s imports come from. But violence continues to displace people in other parts of the country, and cut access routes for food, fuel and aid.

There is food in Yemen, but severe inflation has eroded people’s ability to buy it, and the non-payment of government worker salaries has left many households without incomes.

“It’s a disaster on the edge of famine … Yemeni society and families are exhausted,” Aslami said. “The only solution is to stop the war.”

(This version of the story has been refiled to remove extraneous word “they” in paragraph six)

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alison Williams)

U.S. military ready to protect diplomats in Venezuela: admiral

People attend a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government at Plaza Bolivar in Lima, Peru February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military is prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities in Venezuela if needed, the U.S. admiral in charge of American forces in South America said on Thursday.

“We are prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities if necessary,” Navy Admiral Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

He did not provide any details on how the U.S. military might respond.

Venezuela’s collapse under President Nicolas Maduro, with the country, plunged into poverty and driving some 3 million people to flee abroad, has forced nations worldwide to take a stance, particularly after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president last month.

Major European Union nations have joined the United States, Canada and a group of Latin American countries in recognizing Guaido as the rightful interim ruler of the South American nation.

Faller said Venezuela had about 2,000 generals and the majority of them were loyal to Maduro because of the wealth they have amassed from drug trafficking, petroleum revenue and business revenue.

Still, he said, rank-and-file soldiers were starving “just like the population” of Venezuela.

“The legitimate government of President Guaido has offered amnesty, and a place for the military forces, most of which we think would be loyal to the Constitution, not to a dictator, a place to go,” Faller said.

He added that the Venezuelan military was degraded.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish)

Venezuela’s Guaido declares himself president, Maduro under pressure

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Corina Pons, Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president on Wednesday, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured onto the streets to demand an end to the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In a statement minutes later, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.

Demonstrators clogged avenues in eastern Caracas, chanting “Get out, Maduro” and “Guaido, Presidente,” while waving national flags. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in several areas. A rally the night before left four people reported dead, an echo of tumultuous riots two years ago.

The opposition has been energized by young congress chief Guaido, who has led a campaign to declare Maduro a usurper and has promised a transition to a new government in a nation suffering a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Guaido, in a speech before a cheering crowd, took an oath swearing himself in as interim president.

“I swear to assume all the powers of the presidency to secure an end of the usurpation,” he said.

He has said he would be willing to replace Maduro with the support of the military and to call free elections.

The Trump administration told U.S. energy companies it could impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil as soon as this week if the political situation worsens, according to sources.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 to another term in office following a widely boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as a fraudulent. His government accuses Guaido of staging a coup and has threatened him with jail.

ARMED FORCES

Any change in government in Venezuela will rest on a shift in allegiance within the armed forces. They have stood by Maduro through two waves of street protests and a steady dismantling of democratic institutions.

“We need freedom, we need this corrupt government to get out, we need to all unite, so that there is peace in Venezuela,” said Claudia Olaizola, a 54-year-old saleswoman near the march’s center in the eastern Chacao district, a traditional opposition bastion.

In a potent symbol of anger, demonstrators in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz on Tuesday toppled a statue of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, broke it in half and dangled part of it from a bridge.

A 16-year-old was shot to death at a protest on Tuesday in western Caracas, according to rights group Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. Three people were shot dead on Tuesday night in southern Bolivar City during a looting of a grocery store that followed a nearby protest, Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera said in a telephone interview.

Maduro has presided over Venezuela’s spiral into its worst-ever economic crisis. His re-election in 2018 was widely viewed as a sham due to widespread election irregularities.

“We’ve come out to support the opposition and preserve the future of my son and my family, because we’re going hungry,” said Jose Barrientos, 31, an auto parts salesman in the poor west end of Caracas.

(Reporting by Corina Pons, Angus Berwick, Mayela Armas, Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Additional reporting by Francisco Aguilar in Barinas and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Alistair Bell)

Dentists, soldiers mix cocktails to leave crisis-hit Venezuela

Carlos Alzaibar takes documents as he packs his suitcase at his home in Caracas, Venezuela March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Andreina Aponte and Liamar Ramos

CARACAS (Reuters) – Like many young Venezuelans in recent years, dentist Carlos Alzaibar felt forced to leave the country when he could scrape together only a few dollars equivalent each month doing two jobs.

So on a recent day, just before flying to Madrid, he was sadly packing a red suitcase – while stacking diplomas from a half a dozen trades he picked up in the last year from bakery and bartending to photography and burger-flipping.

Those, he hoped, would help him find work in Spain and fund the medicines his mother needs for a kidney transplant.

“If not, she’s going to die,” Alzaibar, 28, said, folding socks and shirts in his family’s middle-class Caracas apartment.

Droves of Venezuelans, including professionals like Alzaibar and even retired soldiers and prosecutors, have been taking short courses to prepare for life abroad.

Suffering a severe economic crisis that has left many people short of food and basics, nearly a million Venezuelans have departed since 2015, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, calls it one of the biggest population flows in its nearly 70-year history.

The OPEC nation sits on the world’s largest oil supplies, but has seen annual production slump to a three-decade low, along with a four-year economic recession.

COCKTAILS AND COFFEE

Valentina Maggi, 22, studied graphic design and dreams of illustrating children’s stories, but has followed in friends’ footsteps to learn how to mix cocktails at the National Bartender Academy.

“I have many friends who have left the country and have told me to do this type of course because when you get there, you have more work options,” she said in a room with a long table where she had just completed her final test: a Gin Fizz made from gin, lemon, sugar and soda water.

At the academy, 6,000 students are expected to graduate this year – up from 4,500 a couple of years ago.

With Maggi were a 60-year-old retired military officer and a 52-year-old former Supreme Court prosecutor, both hoping to land work at bars in the United States and Argentina respectively.

Asking not to disclose his name for fear of reprisal, the former soldier said his monthly pension of some $5 at the black market exchange rate, left nothing for food after paying for his two sons’ schools.

Venezuela’s economic meltdown is one of the worst slumps in modern Latin American history.

Gross domestic product is shrinking on a scale akin to that of the United States during the Great Depression and inflation is the highest in the world, nearly 9,000 percent annually, according to National Assembly data.

A monthly minimum wage is worth less than a carton of eggs.

While critics lambaste President Nicolas Maduro for failed socialist economic policies and corruption, he says a U.S.-led “economic war” including financial sanctions are to blame.

“From six or eight months ago, everyone’s getting ready to go,” said Pietro Carbone, surrounded by the aroma of freshly crushed coffee beans at his barista training center where places are fully booked for the next three months.

(Reporting by Andreina Aponte and Liamar Ramos; Additional reporting by Efrain Otero; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney; Twitter: @ReutersVzla, @jammastergirish)

Lootings, scattered protests hit Venezuelan industrial city

A general view of the damage at a mini-market after it was looted in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela January 9, 2018.

By Maria Ramirez

CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – A second day of lootings and scattered street protests hit the Ciudad Guayana in southeastern Venezuela on Tuesday, as unrest grows in the once-booming industrial city plagued with food shortages and a malaria outbreak.

At least five food stores were looted overnight, with police sources saying some 20 people had been arrested. Angry Venezuelans also blocked three major roads to demand anti-malaria medicine, food, cooking gas and spare parts for trucks.

There has been increasing unrest around the South American OPEC member in the last few weeks as a fourth straight year of painful recession and the world’s highest inflation leaves millions unable to eat enough.

Erika Garcia tearfully recounted how looters ransacked her food shop and home just 10 minutes after National Guard soldiers who had been patrolling the area withdrew late on Monday night.

“They stole everything. They broke off the water pipes, they ripped off the toilet bowl, they took away the windows, the fences, the doors, the beds. Everything. They did not kill us because we ran, but they did beat us up,” said Garcia, 38, who planned to sleep at a relative’s house on Tuesday night

She said there was no way she could reopen her store.

The overnight lootings follow at least four similar in the early hours of Monday. Around 10 liquor stores were also looted on Christmas day in southeastern Bolivar state, according to the local chamber of commerce head Florenzo Schettino.

Critics blame President Nicolas Maduro and the ruling Socialist Party for Venezuela’s economic mess, saying they have persisted with failed statist policies for too long while turning a blind eye to rampant corruption and suffering.

The government says it is the victim of an “economic war” by political opponents and right-wing foreign powers, intent on bringing down Maduro in a coup. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the lootings on Tuesday.

The wave of plunder has spooked many in Ciudad Guyana, leading more people to stay indoors come nightfall and dissuading some stores from opening.

Metal worker Alvaro Becerra lives near a store that was ransacked overnight.

“We lived a night of terror,” said Becerra, 52, adding he heard gunshots and saw people carrying a freezer full of food.

“Today everything is closed. There’s no place to buy. The only people who are working are those who sell vegetables,” he said.

(Reporting by Maria Ramirez; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Lights back on in Venezuela after five-hour blackout

Lights back on in Venezuela after five-hour blackout

By Alexandra Ulmer and Fabian Cambero

CARACAS (Reuters) – A power outage hit parts of the Venezuelan capital Caracas as well as the nearby states of Miranda and Vargas for around five hours on Monday, in what critics said was another sign of the oil-rich nation’s economic meltdown.

Authorities blamed the outage, which began around noon (1600 GMT), on the collapse of an important cable linking a power plant and a transmission tower.

The fault affected some phone lines, parts of the Caracas metro, and the main Maiquetia airport just outside the capital.

Many workers had no choice but to walk home, shops and restaurants closed, and Venezuelans grumbled that another day was disrupted by tumult.

The country is already grappling with the world’s fastest inflation, rising malnutrition, and disease as the state-led economic system grinds to a halt.

“Venezuela has fallen apart,” said David Garcia, 38, as he queued for a hotdog at a stand in the wealthier Chacao neighborhood. He had spent two hours looking for an open restaurant because he could not cook at home.

Venezuela has in recent years suffered frequent blackouts that critics attribute to insufficient investment following the 2007 nationalization of the electricity sector.

“This is a symptom of a country collapsing due to the negligence of those in power,” tweeted opposition lawmaker Tomás Guanipa.

The government has in some cases attributed the blackouts to sabotage or accused critics of exaggerating problems.

Energy minister Luis Motta on Monday tweeted articles on a recent power outage at Atlanta airport in the U.S. state of Georgia, adding: “It happens there too.”

He did not provide details on the magnitude and effects of Monday’s blackout.

Shopkeepers complained that the outage had hurt business.

“It’s a lost day,” said Armindo Gomes, 24, whose Portuguese family runs two bakeries, as he pointed at dough, cheese and meat that should have been refrigerated.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero and Alexandra Ulmer, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Doctors turn militant over Venezuela’s health crisis

Patients lie in hospital beds in the hallway of Venezuelan hospital

By Corina Pons

MERIDA, Venezuela Reuters) – A dozen doctors hold a hunger strike in the corridors of an Andean city hospital. In another provincial city, hundreds of protesting medics suspend appointments.

In the capital, staff from a pediatric hospital wave placards at the entrance to a hospital pleading for aid.

Not usually active in politics, many of the OPEC nation’s 40,000 doctors are becoming increasingly militant over drastic shortages of medicines, equipment and personnel amid a punishing economic crisis.

With eight out of 10 medicines now scarce, according to the main pharmacy group, protesting doctors are demanding that President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government declare a national health crisis and allow foreign humanitarian aid.

“I started to see patients, both in the operating theater and in the emergency ward, dying for lack of medicines,” said David Macineiras, a 30-year-old orthopedic surgeon and one of 12 doctors who went on hunger strike at the main state hospital in the western highland city of Merida.

“They arrive in bad conditions and we can’t even get adrenaline to deal with a cardiac arrest,” he said, describing the case of a woman who died for lack of adrenaline. Macineiras himself was hospitalized for four days after his hunger strike.

The protests involve a small percentage of doctors, in part because medics – especially younger ones – depend on the state to complete their residencies and studies and so have good reason to avoid conflict.

Doctors who hold high-ranking positions in public health acknowledge there are problems, but insist that none are sufficiently severe as to put patient lives at risk.

Christian Pino, a surgeon at the Merida hospital who also joined the strike, insists the opposite is true.

He recently operated on an elderly woman who due to chronic hospital shortages had to bring her own supplies, including saline solution. It ran out before the operation finished.

“In post-op, we didn’t have any serum to hydrate her, so the patient died,” he said at the hospital where stretchers packed corridors and incubators stood abandoned with handwritten signs saying they were out of service.

In June, Pino read a list of doctors’ demands in Venezuela’s National Assembly before the opposition-led legislature declared a state of medical emergency and approved channels for foreign humanitarian aid.

“I prefer to raise my voice with my colleagues than be an accomplice to this,” Pino said.

But the government-leaning Supreme Court shot down the assembly’s proposal. Government officials deny Venezuela is facing a humanitarian crisis and say there is no need for humanitarian assistance.

Maduro is fiercely proud of health advances under the 1999-2013 rule of socialist leader Hugo Chavez, and he says adversaries are exaggerating the problems now.

“There is no humanitarian crisis, I say it with absolute responsibility,” Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez recently told an Organization of American States meeting on Venezuela.

DEPRESSING DATA

Up-to-date data is hard to find, but what little is available points to a severe deterioration.

Health ministry statistics show that in 2015 for every 100 people discharged from state hospitals, 31 died – a rate six times higher than the previous year. Infant mortality was 2 percent of births last year, 100 times worse than 2014.

It is a huge challenge for the ruling Socialist Party which, under Chavez, ran enormously popular free health projects such as Cuban-staffed clinics in the slums but is now finding its welfare programs stretched.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Venezuela and Guyana were the only countries in South America to see maternal death rates worsen last year.

Health Minister Luisana Melo recently recognized health sector problems but said authorities are working to reduce the rates of infant mortality and death during childbirth.

She said shortages only affect around 15 percent of medicines and that Venezuelans tend to consume more medicine than they need to.

The government says a U.S.-backed “economic war” by political opponents and hostile business groups has caused the crisis, exacerbated by a plunge in the price of oil, which accounts for 95 percent of export revenues.

Huge lines snake around most pharmacies from before dawn, with some people staying all night to stake a place. Rowdy scenes are common, and soldiers guard the crowds.

In Merida, orthopedic surgeon Carlos Hidalgo said he joined the hunger strike after a patient arrived with an open fracture of the tibia and femur and there was no saline solution to clean the wound.

“They went to a kiosk and bought water to wash him with that,” he said. An infection set in and the patient’s leg was amputated.

“That’s why we protested, not because of our working conditions,” said Hidalgo, who makes 16,000 bolivars a month, equivalent to about $25 at the weaker of two official exchange rates and just $16 on the black market.

Some doctors are also worried about their legal liability. Medics in the city of Barquisimeto decided to ask patients’ relatives to sign a permission slip acknowledging the poor conditions they were working under.

At hospitals there, medics have held two strikes this year. Surgeries were halted on a recent day due to lack of gloves.

Idabelias Arias, the head of the emergency ward at a pediatric hospital in Barquisimeto, has had to use basic CPR (Cardiopulmonary resuscitation) to revive children for lack of adrenaline. “Doctors are doing war medicine here.”

(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kieran Murray)