A generation of Venezuelan children know only struggles
Valerie Torres' mother has tried to shield her from the worst of Venezuela's protracted crisis — the deadly protests, the sick people begging for help, the malnourished children with protruding ribs. At school, her teachers don't even broach the subject.
But just shy of her 10th birthday this month, the girl is perceptive beyond her years. She knows her fourth-grade classmate lied to their teacher saying he forgot a book at home when in fact he was still saving up to buy it; that neighbors, friends and even her grandmother have all fled the country in search of a better life; that her mother is bringing home fewer groceries.
"Inflation is horrible. A candy is 3 bolivars. A candy!" Valerie said in disbelief, recalling when it used to cost half a bolivar, Venezuela's official yet worthless currency, which has effectively been replaced by the U.S. dollar. "And before, a dollar cost about 5 or 7 bolivars. Now it is 23. I can't buy anything anymore."
Valerie is part of a generation of Venezuelan children who know only a country in crisis, whose lives so far have been spent amid hardship and under the government of a single president, Nicolás Maduro, who took the reins a decade ago Sunday when his mentor, Hugo Chávez, died of cancer.
The succession coincided with a steep drop in the price of oil, the resource that fueled the country's economy and funded social programs under Chávez. That, coupled with government mismanagement under both presidents, plunged the South American nation into the ongoing crisis.
Many children have grown up being forced to eat nutrient-deficient food or skip meals, wave goodbye to migrating parents and sit in crumbling classrooms for classes that barely prepare them to add and subtract. The consequences could be long-lasting.
About three-quarters of Venezuelans live on less than $1.90 a day — the international benchmark of extreme poverty. The minimum wage paid in bolivars is the equivalent of $5 per month, down from $30 in April.
Neither of those wages is enough to feed one person, let alone a family. An independent group of economists that tracks price increases and other metrics estimated that a basic basket of goods for a family of four cost $372 in December.
That harsh reality has spilled over into the classroom, with teachers walking out to protest their paltry salaries, which some complement by moonlighting as tutors, selling baked goods or stripping at clubs. Thousands have quit entirely, and many of those who still teach do so in facilities plagued by pests, mold, filth and standing water that attracts mosquitoes.
Kevin Paredes, a 12-year-old fifth grader, attends one such public school across the street from the home he shares with his parents and six siblings in Caracas, Venezuela's capital. Last year, the school was painted orange and bright green, but work to fix caving walls and other structural issues remains unfinished.
Kevin began memorizing multiplication tables in third grade. Teachers should have introduced him to division that same year, but they have not taught it yet.
He recently stayed home for several weeks because his family could not afford notebooks and only just returned to class. Sitting on the sidewalk outside the school, he described with enthusiasm a recent school project he has enjoyed: "I'm planting a bell pepper."
Kevin's parents, both of whom sew for a living, are earning only enough to buy three or four food items at a time, instead of in bulk as they used to a few years ago. Less money is coming in because clients are focused on buying necessities, not new clothes.
His father, 41-year-old Henry Paredes, migrated to Ecuador in 2018 to work harvesting bananas and made enough to help support the family back home. But he returned to Venezuela after only eight months upon noticing Kevin's growing anger and sadness over their separation. His toddler daughters did not recognize him when he came home.
"One endures, but the little children do not," he said of the hunger he feels when he skips meals to feed his children. "They ask for bread, bananas."
Through a countrywide network of ruling-party neighborhood organizers, the government every month distributes packages of dry goods to families for less than half a dollar. Those that are able make another payment of roughly the same amount can get chicken or mortadella from trucks that show up in neighborhoods from time to time.
The United Nations' World Food Programme estimated in 2020 that a third of Venezuelans were not getting enough to eat and needed help. It began offering food assistance to Venezuelans through schools the following year, and in January, it reached 450,000 people in eight states.
Laura Melo, the program's director for Venezuela, said schools where it operates have seen an up to 30% increase in enrollment. The organization is working to refurbish school cafeterias to provide students with hot meals.
Dr. Huniades Urbina, a pediatrician and board member of Venezuela's National Academy of Medicine, said some children underperform academically because they arrive at school weak and hungry after going as much as 12 hours or more without eating. He added that children born during the crisis have had their growth stunted by about 5 to 6 centimeters (2 to 2.4 inches) on average due to poor nutrition.
"We are no longer going to have that 1.80-meter or 1.90-meter-tall (5-foot-9-inch or 6-foot-2-inch) Miss Venezuela," Urbina said, referring to the country's famed enthusiasm for beauty pageants. "In the end, we can have a thin and short generation, but the problem is that this brain ... in the long run will not have the development of a child who consumed adequate protein and calories."
The number of children born into the crisis is unknown since the government stopped publishing birth figures after 2012, a year that saw about 620,000 newborns.
The crisis has driven more than 7 million Venezuelans to leave their home country.
Valerie, the savvy, spunky fourth grader, hopes to join them someday and has her sights set on going to Miami. She dreams of becoming a model, owning a Ferrari and living in a mansion. But she cannot ignore the present and has plenty of questions.
"Sometimes she asks, 'Why do people not like Maduro?'" said Francys Brito, mother to Valerie and another girl, 15. "Well because, thank God, you have everything, but there are many people who don't."
With an eye toward the girls' future, Brito said the family has been paying $100 a month for each to go to a private school where they can benefit from stricter teachers and a stronger curriculum than are typical of the public system. What's left over from her husband's income from a casino job and side hustles goes to food and other necessities.
"I hope and aspire for my daughters to be independent, to be productive workers and above all happy," Brito said.