The Maduro regime denies its once oil-rich country is in crisis. But on the streets the desperation cannot be hidden
Hunger is gnawing at Venezuela, where a government that claims to rule for the poorest has left most of its 31million people short of food, many desperately so. As night falls over Caracas, and most of the citys residents lock their doors against its ever more violent streets, Adriana Velsquez gets ready for work, heading out into an uncertain darkness as she has done since hunger forced her into the only job she could find at 14.
She was introduced to her brothel madam by a friend more than two years ago after her mother, a single parent, was fired and the two ran out of food. It was really hard, but we were going to bed without eating, said the teenager, whose name has been changed to protect her.
Since then Venezuelas crisis has deepened, the number of women working at the brothel has doubled, and their ages have dropped. I was the youngest when I started. Now there are girls who are 12 or 13. Almost all of us are there because of the crisis, because of hunger.
She earns 400,000 bolivares a month, around four times the minimum wage, but at a time of hyperinflation that is now worth about $30, barely enough to feed herself, her mother and a new baby brother. She has signed up to evening classes that run before her nightly shift, and hopes to one day escape from a job where everything is ugly.
Velsquez grew up in one of Caracass poorest and most violent districts, but Venezuelas food crisis respects neither class nor geography. The pangs of hunger are felt through the corridors of its major businesses, behind the microphone on radio shows, in hospitals where malnutrition is climbing sharply and already claiming lives, and at schools where children faint and teachers skip classes to queue for food.
Nearly three-quarters of Venezuelans have lost weight over the past year, and the average loss was a huge 9kg, or nearly a stone and a half, according to a survey by the countrys top universities. For many that is simply because food is too expensive. Nine out of 10 homes cant cover the cost of what they should eat.
And 10million people skip at least one meal a day, often to help feed their children.
David Gonzlez, not his real name, had a college degree, a career and modest middle-class dreams of owning a car and a house before Venezuela slipped towards its current crisis, and spiralling inflation made the food he needed to stay alive unaffordable. In a cafe in downtown Caracas, he explains how his dreams shrank with his wasting body, now so emaciated that ribs and collarbones poke through a once-chubby chest.
Its sad because you stop thinking of what your professional goals and challenges are and instead just focus on what you can eat, said the 29-year-old activist and journalist. Like many of Venezuelas hungry middle classes he was ashamed of his situation.
I had seen people suffering, I saw people queueing for bread, but it had not reached me, I didnt expect it would, he said. Never in my life had I spent a night worrying about what I would eat tomorrow.
This year he has done little else. He stands 5ft 7in tall, and has lost more than a quarter of his body mass, shrinking to little over 50kg (7st 12lb) since the start of the year. During a checkup for a new job, doctors diagnosed a heart murmur caused by stress and hunger. He gets up at 5am to queue for food, but sometimes it isnt there.
Its like an obstacle course. You have to find money to buy food, a place to buy it and then get there in time, he said, with a wry grin that has survived better than his health, before adding: One of the good things about Venezuelans is they laugh about it all food, and security and health.
This summer he swallowed his pride and signed up for a monthly box of subsidised food sold by the government for about $1. I didnt want to be part of that scheme. But I had to change my decision, to literally not die of hunger.
President Nicols Maduro says Venezuelas problems are the result of economic warfare waged by the US. He points to Donald Trumps public mulling of a military option earlier this month as evidence Washington is pushing for regime change, and on Friday slammed ramped-up US sanctions against the government and the state-owned oil corporation as an overt bid to undermine the government by forcing it to default on debt.
Former foreign minister and top aide Delcy Rodrguez has denied the country has a food crisis, denouncing the blackmail of hunger. She told the new legislative super-body she heads: In Venezuela there is no hunger, there is willpower. There is indignation and courage to defend Venezuela.
But critics and economists say the crisis is both real and self-inflicted, the result of a government using a raft of imports as a shortcut to meet promises of development and food security during the heady years of an oil price boom. Venezuela used to produce more than two-thirds of its food, and import the rest, but those proportions are now reversed, with imports making up around 70% of what the country eats.
When crude prices began sliding in 2014, bringing down oil earnings, it left the country short of dollars, and the government decided to focus its income on servicing the national debt rather than importing food.