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Venezuelans Hope to Leave Behind Travails of 2017


Sixto Guzman: 'All the evils have happened in 2017. … We hope to overcome this in 2018.' (N. Kolster/VOA)

For many Venezuelans, 2017 has been a wretched year, rife with severe shortages of basic goods and services, a surge in violent crime and months of deadly protests against the prevailing political powers.

Better to look ahead – maybe.

"We are drowning. We've been hungry, insecure. All the evils have happened in 2017," said Sixto Guzman, a pensioned grandfather interviewed Tuesday on a Caracas street. "We hope to overcome this in 2018."

Guzman had just trekked to three banking outlets while unsuccessfully trying to get enough cash for a bus ticket to deal with a family emergency in Barquisimeto, a city roughly 365 kilometers to the west. He needed another 100,000 bolivars – worth less than a dollar on the black market, though the official rate is about 10 bolivars to the dollar.

Venezuelans such as Guzman hope that the new year will bring relief from a panoply of woes, including nearly worthless currency, long lines to buy regulated products – when they can be found – and high prices.

But prospects are poor for an improved economy in coming months, according to the opposition-led National Assembly, which estimates Venezuela's hyperinflation could accelerate to 2,000 percent. The Socialist government has not released inflation data in at least a year, as Reuters news service noted. Last month, the International Monetary Fund issued a statement scolding Venezuela for failing to provide key indicators needed for monitoring.

Luisa Mago Machado: 'I've spent all Christmas without medicine and that's why I'm crying.' (N. Kolster/VOA)
Luisa Mago Machado: 'I've spent all Christmas without medicine and that's why I'm crying.' (N. Kolster/VOA)

Basic needs unmet

The collapsing economy is taking a toll on Luisa Mago Machado, a 56-year-old Caracas resident diagnosed 11 years ago with fibromyalgia. The chronic disorder, marked by muscle pain and fatigue, is often treated with pain relievers, antidepressants and anti-seizure drugs. But scarcity and high prices have put the simplest medications out of Mago Machado's reach.

"I've spent all Christmas without medicine and that's why I'm crying. … I've been in bed all week," she said, choking back sobs while speaking over the drone of passing street traffic. "I cannot be without medicine. It's a very basic medicine and there is none. There is none."

The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela estimated that the country lacked at least 80 percent of the basic medical supplies needed to treat its 30 million residents – and that was last year. Another complication: People desperate for income have taken up illegal mining in rural, mosquito-ridden areas, leading to malaria outbreaks for which treatment is scarce. The World Health Organization reported last month that Venezuela was among several countries where "ongoing humanitarian crises pose serious health risks" involving the potentially deadly disease.

Rafael Guzman, a legislator serving on the National Assembly's Finance Committee, told VOA he foresees, "more crisis, more poverty, more diseases."

FILE - A vendor sells fruit, vegetables and medicines at a market in Rubio, Venezuela, Dec. 5, 2017. A flourishing black market offers medicines discreetly obtained from Venezuelan hospitals or smuggled in from Colombia.
FILE - A vendor sells fruit, vegetables and medicines at a market in Rubio, Venezuela, Dec. 5, 2017. A flourishing black market offers medicines discreetly obtained from Venezuelan hospitals or smuggled in from Colombia.

Blaming sanctions

President Nicolas Maduro's administration has repeatedly blamed Venezuelans' deprivations on international sanctions and what it has characterized as meddling in the country's domestic affairs.

The European Union, the United States and a handful of other governments have imposed sanctions against Maduro and others in his circle, aimed at pressuring officials to restore democratic processes. More than 120 people were killed in anti-government protests that continued almost daily from April into July.

Guzman criticized the central government.

"There is no way to get ahead with these economic policies because we are not increasing oil production," he said, adding that he believes Venezuela's current trade policies favor government representatives. He also faulted the government for cuts in manufacturing and oil processing that deepen the country's economic pain. "When there is no production, we cannot import. What comes is more crisis."

Many in the oil-rich nation have fallen into poverty. The Survey on Living Conditions in Venezuela, conducted by several universities, reported in February that respondents frequently skipped meals because of food insecurity. Their weight fell by an average 8.7 kilograms or 19 pounds in 2016. Conditions have worsened since then.

Hermenia de Velazco: 'The main thing is for Venezuela … to end the hunger and deteriorated state of its people.' (N. Kolster/VOA)
Hermenia de Velazco: 'The main thing is for Venezuela … to end the hunger and deteriorated state of its people.' (N. Kolster/VOA)

Wishing for a magic wand

Rafael Lacava, governor of the northern state of Carabobo and member of the ruling Socialist Party, acknowledged the dire straits in a Christmas Eve video posted on Twitter.

"I know things are really messed up. Who can hide it?" Lacava, who trained as an economist, said in the video.

In it, Lacava reclines on a bed and offers his wish for 2018. "I only ask the child Jesus give me a magic wand to solve the problems I have."

Wand or not, Caracas resident Herminia de Velazco also wants an end to the Andean country's crisis. The fashionable 80-year-old, searching Tuesday for an east side Caracas bank that could provide cash, paused on a commercial street to express her frustration.

"The main thing is for Venezuela to change," de Velazco said, "and to end the hunger and deteriorated state of its people."

Nicole Kolster reports for VOA's Spanish Service from Caracas.

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