At a soup kitchen in the western Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, hungry and bedraggled men, women and children line up for free lunch. But it's meager fare: They each get a bottle of milk and a few scoops of rice mixed with eggs and vegetables.
Just a few years ago, the lunch program, which is run by the Catholic Church, provided full meals with meat and chicken, as well as fruit juice and even dessert. But amid a deep economic depression and an outbreak of looting in the city, dozens of Maracaibo businesses that used to donate food have closed down.
"We still feed 300 people per day, but it's a reduced menu," says Sara Cooper, a volunteer server. "We have to work with what we have."
Local charities are playing a growing role amid Venezuela's unprecedented humanitarian crisis marked by widespread malnutrition and deaths from preventable diseases. With President Nicolás Maduro's government reeling and in the absence of a massive influx of international assistance, small aid groups are struggling to feed the hungry and treat the sick.
Maduro has refused to declare a humanitarian emergency in part, analysts say, because that would be a tacit admission that his government has failed. But aid workers say that Maduro's stance makes it impossible for international agencies, like the Red Cross, UNICEF and the World Food Programme, to airlift and distribute the tons of supplies that Venezuela needs.
"If the government does not recognize the situation, that limits our ability because the entrance of aid into the country has to be approved by the government," says Carlos Montiel, president of the Venezuelan Red Cross in the western state of Zulia, which includes Maracaibo. "Lives are at risk because we do not have enough supplies."
Maduro insists that Venezuela is getting help from allies like China, Russia, India and Turkey. In a recent speech, he said these nations are sending "hundreds of tons" of supplies to Venezuela.
But aid workers in Maracaibo claim they haven't seen any of it. What's more, food and medicine sent from overseas often get stolen upon arrival at airports in the country or by soldiers at military checkpoints who sometimes demand a cut of the supplies, says Feliciano Reyna, founder of Action for Solidarity, which distributes medicine throughout Venezuela.
In addition, aid groups are facing more scrutiny from the Maduro government. That is partly because the U.S.-backed political opposition in February tried to force tons of humanitarian aid into the country from Colombia as part of an effort to foment regime change. One consequence, aid workers say, is that their efforts are often misconstrued by officials as anti-government activism.
Franklin Montilla, a cook at the Maracaibo soup kitchen, says local bureaucrats recently accused it of serving food in unsanitary conditions and participating in anti-government activities.
"They began to spread false information that there were outbreaks of diarrhea and that we were forming an opposition political movement," Montilla says. "They wanted to close us down."
Gustavo Rincón, president of the Maracaibo-based medical charity Samaritan Foundation, said Venezuela's secret police began monitoring his organization after he volunteered to help opposition leaders distribute aid in poor neighborhoods.
"They are trying to intimidate me because if we bring in aid that's bad for the government's image," he says.
Rincón's day-to-day struggles are typical of those faced by grassroots Venezuelan charities. When NPR recently visited his office, a blackout had left it in the dark and he was unable to get on his computer to check inventory or send out requests for donations.
Inflation last month was over 815,000%, the opposition-led legislature reported this week. Rincón says his rent is so high he fears he may soon have to move, if not close down.
Owing to a lack of spare parts, none of the foundation's five vehicles are working, Rincón says. Even if they were, gasoline shortages often prevent him from delivering supplies.
Rincón hadn't been to a nearby leper colony for the past five months. He is anxious to see how the patients are doing, but the only way to get there is in a taxi hired by NPR. Along the way, Rincón stops at a grocery to load up on eggs, plantains, cheese and chicken for the patients.
Rincón receives a hero's welcome from the patients, some of whom are missing fingers, ears and, in one case, both legs. Food donations are so rare that they often share them with malnourished medical personnel.
The state-run leprosy hospital is so neglected that nurses say they sometimes stop traffic in front of the building to beg for food. Thieves recently stole electric cables, leaving half of the facility without air conditioning in the 100-degree heat. Some of the beds have been moved outdoors to take advantage of a slight breeze.
"They are completely abandoned," Rincón says, shaking his head.
That's why, despite his own difficulties, Rincón promises that he'll be back. As he leaves one of the patients says: "May God bless you."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Venezuela's main border crossing with Colombia has reopened for the first time in four months. That's made it easier for Venezuelans to get food and medicine. The country is suffering what international aid groups call a humanitarian disaster, one that President Nicolas Maduro refuses to recognize. So as John Otis reports, local charities are the ones trying to help the needy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At this soup kitchen in the western city of Maracaibo, Venezuelans give thanks before lining up for lunch.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: It's meager fare. Each person receives a bottle of milk and a few spoonfuls of rice mixed with eggs and vegetables. Run by the Catholic Church, this program used to provide full meals. But amid Venezuela's economic meltdown, many of the businesses that used to donate food have closed, says volunteer Sara Cooper.
SARA COOPER: So to get 10 kilos of potatoes, 10 kilos of carrots, sometimes we don't finish it. We don't complete it.
OTIS: You don't get enough.
COOPER: Right, Right. So we'll have to work with what we have.
OTIS: The soup kitchen is small, yet it's come under scrutiny from the Maduro government. Venezuela's political opposition, which is trying to force Maduro from power, is constantly talking about the need for international aid. As a result, aid workers say their efforts are often misconstrued by officials as anti-government activism.
FRANKLIN MONTILLA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In fact, Franklin Montilla, a cook at the soup kitchen, says bureaucrats recently tried to shut it down, claiming unsanitary conditions. Critics say Maduro refuses to declare a humanitarian emergency because it would signal that his government has failed. But his position makes it legally impossible for international agencies to bring in the vast amount of aid that the country needs.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In a recent speech, Maduro insisted that allies like China, India, Russia and Turkey are supplying hundreds of tons of aid. But aid workers in Maracaibo claim they haven't seen any of it and that the burden on local charities is growing heavier.
GUSTAVO RINCON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Among them is the Samaritan Foundation that distributes baby formula, antibiotics and other supplies in Maracaibo. Its director, Gustavo Rincon, shows me around his office, which thanks to nationwide blackouts has no electricity.
RINCON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Due to a lack of spare parts, Rincon says none of the foundation's five vehicles are working. Even if they were, gas shortages often prevent him from delivering supplies. He hasn't been to a nearby leper colony for five months, so I agree to take him in my taxi.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: First we stop by a grocery to load up on eggs, plantains and chicken for the patients.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Gustavo, Gustavo.
OTIS: Upon our arrival, Rincon receives a hero's welcome. Food donations are so rare that the patients, who are missing fingers ears and, in one case, both legs, often share it with malnourished nurses.
RINCON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Thieves recently stole the electric cables, leaving the facility without air conditioning in the 100-degree heat. Some of the beds have been moved outdoors to take advantage of a slight breeze.
Like, they don't get Red Cross help or United Nations or World Food Programme.
RINCON: No, no any organized - public organization or international organization are taking care of them. They completely abandoned.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: That's why despite his own difficulties, Rincon promises he'll be back. As he leaves, one of the patients says, may God bless you. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.