The Smallest Faces of Venezuela's Crisis
Photographer: Miguel Gutierrez
The streets of Venezuela's capital Caracas are filled with homeless children. Children who run, laugh, search for food among the trash and swim in polluted rivers. And children who abuse drugs that allow them some respite from the harsh realities of living rough. These neglected minors represent one of the many faces of the severe economic and social crisis ravaging the oil-rich South American country.
Over the span of two months, efe-epa photojournalist Miguel Gutierrez documented the day-to-day lives of these children, presented here in a four-part photo essay:
The children mostly live in public spaces in Caracas, where, apart from begging, they have set up an elaborate system to survive.
Liliana, 17, is one of them. She gave birth to tiny Ángel at the maternity ward of the country's oldest public hospital, Maternidad Concepción Palacios, which has also been visibly affected by the devastating crisis. Shortly after giving birth, it emerged that she was suffering from syphilis and her son had inherited the sexually-transmitted disease.
No institution, be it public or private, has been able to provide any figures or even estimates on the number of children and teenagers living on the streets in Venezuela, although the dire situation appears to be self-evident to anyone with eyes. Miguel Rebolledo, the coordinator of the Domingo Savio shelter for homeless teenagers, told EFE that there has been a dramatic uptick in the abandonment of children. 'We have the case of a divided family: a woman decides to abandon her eight children. Here I've got the two oldest, who are 11 and 12 years old. When looking at the case, I realized that the oldest boy has problems at school because he has to look after his smaller siblings. The father comes to visit and spends some time with them when he can,' Rebolledo explained.
Paola is another example: she left her home aged 13 and is now a 15-year-old who says she is much happier leading a rough life on the streets than at her mother’s house, where the latter's boyfriend rejects her, while outdoors she can do what she wants. 'The worst I have had to live through was when they tried to kill me, and they almost managed to do it. Do you see this scar on my throat? Well, a guy who was bigger than me though I had ratted him out to the police over his weird dealings, so he followed me one day with his friends, broke a glass bottle and slit my throat with it,' she said. They then tossed her into the river Guaire flowing through Caracas, where all the city's sewage and waste ends up.
The fact that Paola is still alive is nothing short of a miracle.
Jesús, 16, has been living on the streets for four years and survives by crafting purses from worthless banknotes of the devalued Bolivar currency that no one wants anymore. 'I'm not from Caracas; I used to live in Maracay (located some 100 kilometers to the west of the capital) with my mother, three siblings and my aunt and uncle,' Jesús said. 'My dad is dead because he was shot with a shotgun, he was a bad person. I left home because I was feeling awful there since they were fighting a lot over food, which wasn’t enough for everyone, so I got sick of it.'
The street children are happy when they're given food, but their biggest joy comes when they receive money. With the money they will rush to buy the drugs that help them escape from reality. That abstraction reveals itself on a sidewalk where a child won't let the honking, dogs or pedestrians perturb his sleep. Walking barefoot on streets strewn with nails and broken glass has left many of them with lesions on their feet and hands. Wandering among the traffic poses another danger, although the efe-epa photojournalist saw one boy get struck by a car and miraculously leave unscathed.
In 1998, in the first press conference after emerging triumphant in the elections that launched the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, the late President Hugo Chávez vowed to tackle the issue of homeless children. 'I forbid myself – Hugo Chávez forbids himself – from allowing children on the streets of Venezuela. I forbid myself. There cannot be any children living on the streets of Venezuela,' Chávez said two decades ago.
To that extent, the revolution's legacy has proven itself a failure.