Doctors pray for sick as blackout batters Venezuelan hospitals

Venezuelans, including doctors, hold banners that read "Solidarity" as they gather outside a church after a mass during an ongoing blackout in downtown Caracas, Venezuela March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Maria Rodriguez’s daughter has spent a month in Caracas’s J.M. de los Rios children’s hospital with hydrocephalus, a buildup of spinal fluid in the brain, but staff there have faced an uphill battle treating the girl because of a nationwide power outage.

“It has been horrible since the blackout. My daughter needs treatment that lasts six hours: now she is only getting it when there is power available,” said Rodriguez, 36, who said she is also worried about inadequate water and food in the facility.

Venezuela’s hospitals, already struggling with shortages of supplies and equipment amid an economic meltdown, entered crisis mode on Thursday when the South American nation’s power system went down.

Public hospitals typically have generators to provide back-up electricity in the event of an outage, but doctors consulted by Reuters said they were either damaged or idled for lack of fuel.

Julio Castro of the non-governmental organization Doctors for Health says the blackouts have stretched Venezuelan hospitals to the breaking point. The group says at least 21 people have died in public hospitals during the outage.

“This (blackout) is taking place at a moment when hospitals are operating at limited capacity,” Castro said. “It is not the same as when a hospital is functioning correctly.”

Among the most prone to electricity problems in hospitals are newborns, he said. About 10 percent of the 1,500 children born each day in Venezuela require incubators or other such equipment that cannot function without steady power.

Even before the blackouts, the state of the healthcare system was dire. In a report last year, Doctors for Health said doctors in more than half of Venezuela’s hospitals had been attacked by people who were angry the decaying medical system could not do more for their relatives.

Not having power means hospitals struggle to obtain water, fueling sanitation problems that are aggravated by shortages of cleaning products. Constant fluctuations in electricity also risk damaging the limited equipment that hospitals have.

Socialist President Nicolas Maduro says last week’s blackout was the result of U.S.-backed sabotage, and Venezuelan health authorities say they have kept services intact despite the circumstances.

“The contingency plan has worked, problems have been corrected and patients have been transferred (to other hospitals) when they have requested it,” Health Minister Carlos Alvarado told state television on Sunday.

DOCTORS’ PRAYERS

A group of doctors on Sunday held a mass to pray for the sick, and later walked to the J.M. de los Rios hospital to seek more details about the situation there.

The doors were locked even though they arrived during visiting hours. Women shouted from the windows that they needed help and that there was no food, but police at the entrance blocked their way, according to a Reuters witness.

Several members of a police special forces group called FAES were stationed inside the hospital, according to witnesses.

Within hours, hospital director Natalia Martinho appeared on state television to assure the public everything was fine.

    ”(The) children are in stable condition. The response to this contingency has been a great achievement,” she said. “We have given food to children and their mothers.”

    But for the relatives of patients seeking hospital treatment, official reassurances are little consolation.

Maria Torres, 46, waited anxiously on Sunday outside Caracas’ El Llanito hospital, where her brother was admitted for injuries sustained in a car accident. She worried for his well-being due to the lack of water, medical supplies and electricity.

“This is a nightmare,” she said.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas; Editing by Vivian Sequera, Brian Ellsworth and Paul Simao)

Warding off hunger, Venezuelans find meals in garbage bins

A man sits on a rubbish container in Caracas, Venezuela February 26, 2019. Picture taken February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Tony, a 36-year old security guard, rummages through the garbage bins of a wealthy district in Caracas on his days off work, scavenging for food as Venezuela’s economic meltdown has left even the employed struggling to find enough to eat.

“I smell it and if it smells good, then I take it home,” said Tony, who declined to disclose his last name because he does not want his wife and four children to know how he has been putting food on their table for more than a year.

He said he typically finds scraps of meat, cheese and pieces of vegetables on his garbage runs. “I wash it with vinegar, a lot of water, and I add onion and sauce.

Scenes of Venezuelans picking through garbage in a search for something to eat has for years been a symbol of the nation’s economic meltdown, which has been marked by widespread shortages of food and medicine as well as hyperinflation.

But the problem received renewed attention this week after the South American nation’s socialist government deported American journalist Jorge Ramos, who showed a video of people eating garbage while he interviewed President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, who has been in power since 2013 and was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, has previously dismissed journalists’ questions about garbage consumption, saying they were part of a U.S.-backed propaganda campaign against his government.

He denies there is a humanitarian crisis in his country and says foreign governments are seeking to undermine him.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

It is not uncommon for poor and indigent residents of the world’s wealthiest nations to root through dumpsters. But it is rare in those nations for people with full-time jobs to rely on garbage to sustain their families.

Prices in Venezuela are rising more than 2 million percent per year, and the country’s minimum wage, worth around $6 per month, buys little more than a tray of eggs.

Many Venezuelans rely on remittances from relatives who have joined an exodus of an estimated 3.4 million people since 2015, according to the United Nations, while others depend on government food handouts.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in January declared himself to be Venezuela’s interim president, led an effort last week to bring humanitarian aid into the country, but troops blocked trucks from getting in.

Most Western nations including the United States have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

“I’ve had to teach my children to eat everything,” said Estefani Quintero, 35, a mother of seven who travels two hours to Caracas from a distant suburb to trawl garbage bags. “Of course it’s the government that’s at fault for this. We used to eat breakfast lunch and dinner, we even threw away food.”

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama; Writing by Sarah Marsh and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Paul Simao)

Crisis moment approaching in Venezuelan exodus: U.N. agency

Venezuelan migrants queue to get the needed paperwork for a temporary residency permit at Interpol headquarters in Lima, Peru August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The exodus of migrants from Venezuela is building towards a “crisis moment” comparable to events involving refugees in the Mediterranean, the U.N. migration agency said on Friday.

Growing numbers are fleeing economic meltdown and political turmoil in Venezuela, threatening to overwhelm neighboring countries. Officials from Colombia, Ecuador and Peru will meet in Bogota next week to seek a way forward.

Ecuador and Peru have this month tightened entry rules for Venezuelans, requiring them to carry valid passports instead of just national ID cards. While in Brazil, rioters drove hundreds back over the border.

Describing those events as early warning signs, International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesman Joel Millman said funding and means of managing the outflow must be mobilized.

“This is building to a crisis moment that we’ve seen in other parts of the world, particularly in the Mediterranean,” he told a news briefing.

On Thursday, the IOM and U.N. refugee agency UNHCR called on Latin American countries to ease entry for Venezuelans, more than 1.6 million of whom have left since 2015.

UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said on Friday that governments had made “commendable” efforts despite some reception capacities and services being overwhelmed.

But “some disturbing images” had emerged from the region in the past week. “Those increase stigmatization of those who are forced to flee, they put at risk also the efforts for their integration,” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet)