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Amid Economic Crisis, Venezuelans Try To Find Food In Colombia


This weekend, the borders of Venezuela opened for the first time in a year allowing some Venezuelans the opportunity to travel to Colombia for much needed food and medicine. The Venezuelan government had closed its borders to prevent mass exodus as the nation struggles with shortages of food and supplies.

The global collapse of the oil industry has left Venezuela mired in a severe economic crisis. It's not a stretch to say some Venezuelans are starving. To get an update on the humanitarian crisis, we reached out to Hannah Dreier. She's a correspondent for the AP in Venezuela. I asked her how the situation has worsened there over the summer.

HANNAH DREIER: Yeah. It feels like we're seeing a collapse of society on just about every level this summer. Here in the capital, families are having such a hard time finding food that they're basically spending all day in bed just to save calories. We're seeing a wave of women coming in to be sterilized because it's just gotten too hard to raise a child here with no diapers, no soap, no milk. And just lately, we're seeing an uptick in reports of infanticide. It's like every social norm has broken down, and it's really shocking to see because until just recently, this was the richest country in South America.

AUBREY: That sounds just horrible. Now, you have been spending time in hospitals in Caracas, I gather. What are you seeing there?

DREIER: Yeah, going into these hospitals is some of the bleakest reporting that I've ever done. You go in, and you see these tiny emaciated children who doctors say are way past the point of saving. Elderly people come in like that, too, where they've wasted away and the only thing to do is give them morphine. Children are also being hospitalized because they're eating things that are poisonous. For example, this month a few kids died because they ate bitter yuca. That's a plant that's common here, but it contains cyanide, and it's poisonous if you don't process it right.

And I'm also seeing children die from illnesses that really nobody should die from. This summer I followed one family that was racing around Caracas trying to find medicine for a toddler's diarrhea. They didn't find it, and the girl died. And it's like the dark ages trying to save lives with no medicine.

AUBREY: Is the government getting help from anybody outside or are there outside aid groups coming in to help the country? It just sounds dire.

DREIER: Right. You said earlier that there's a humanitarian crisis here, but that's something that the socialist government would deny. The government says there's no crisis here and because of that, there is no need for humanitarian aid. And that's really maddening for activists because there are all sorts of people outside who want to help, but the government doesn't let aid in so there's not much that can be done.

AUBREY: Now, as we mentioned, President Maduro and Colombian President Santos have agreed to reopen the border. Can you tell us why and how this agreement came together?

DREIER: So the borders opened this weekend for the first time in a year, and it's going to be permanently opened now. The move comes after hundreds of Venezuelans rushed the border and crossed illegally to buy food and medicine. The border with Colombia was closed a year ago after Venezuela said that the shortages here were caused by people taking food and medicine as contraband and selling it in Colombia.

But as the situation has worsened here, it's just become untenable to have that border closed. People are really excited because it means that they're going to be able to buy food and medicine in Colombia for the first time in a year. It's not really a long-term solution, but Venezuela - lately it feels like a deserted island and just being able to have one kind of escape valve where if you really desperately need something, you can go take a 10-hour bus ride and cross the border and get it. That's a big deal.

AUBREY: So is it safe to say that if you go into any store there's either no food on the shelves or what's there is so expensive it's just out of reach of most people?

DREIER: Yeah. So Venezuelans - it's funny. There's kind of a pride in the way that they stock their shelves, so you rarely see empty shelves. What you'll see instead is maybe a store and all it has is baby wipes on every shelf or all it has is ketchup. It's never what you want, and it's always very expensive. And then you can go to the black market. There are these kind of outdoor stalls where they'll be selling, say, bananas, but if you ask, they'll also have sugar or flour. But that is way out of the reach of most Venezuelans these days, and even for me. I earn in dollars, and it's become very expensive.

AUBREY: That was Hannah Dreier from the Associated Press. We reached her in Caracas, Venezuela. Thanks so much for joining us, Hannah.

DREIER: Thanks, Allison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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