I still remember when I turned six. It was 1999 and when I came back from school, I found a cake waiting for me. There was what, at that time, looked like a huge box, gift wrapped, in the middle of our living room next to the TV: a brand new Nintendo 64, with a copy of the recently released Super Smash Bros. One of the happiest days in my life, and that’s just one of the many happy memories I keep from my childhood, in a country that most Venezuelan kids can only dream about today. Hugo Chávez had been president for little more than four months, there were no power outages, middle-class families like mine could afford video-game consoles without it meaning an economic catastrophe, and a kid’s biggest worry was homework, rather than hunger.
Growing up in Venezuela today is entirely different.
Candies and other treats, which I could easily buy in my school cafeteria, are now unaffordable for most families. Going to the movies and getting some popcorn and two cups of coke will cost you about 60,000 bolivars, 1,5 times the monthly minimum wage today. Similarly, a McDonald’s Happy Meal is now almost half the monthly minimum wage, its classic toys replaced by thin coloring books or cardboard figures.
Actually, toys in general, have almost disappeared. The few stores that remain open have only a few Chinese imitations of brands like Lego or Mattel, which are still unaffordable for most Venezuelans. Even families that somehow keep some purchasing power see their children rarely leaving home, other than for school since they have turned into easy targets for kidnappers. Things, like playing soccer in the streets, walking in the park, or even taking the bus, are high-risk activities because of widespread regular crime. Last week, I met a 12-year-old girl who was forced to stop her flamenco lessons because her parents had run out of gas and couldn’t drive her anymore.
Something as simple as family dinner is a privilege in a country where up to 840,000 children have lost a parent due to emigration.
But these “frivolities” aren’t the only things that have disappeared from Venezuelans’ childhood. Things that most Venezuelans took for granted growing up, such as three daily meals or quality education, are now out of reach for increasingly larger numbers of children across the country. Something as simple as family dinner is a privilege in a country where up to 840,000 children have lost a parent due to emigration. I see them every day in my practice as a rural doctor, left behind with their grandparents, all of them depending on the little money their parents send them.
Even staying healthy is now a huge challenge for most Venezuelan children. Malnourished kids are more common all over the country and controlled infectious diseases have re-emerged. With irregular access to vaccines (which sometimes spoil after hours-long blackouts), many families are forced to travel all the way to Colombia just to vaccinate their children. Those who can afford it, often buy them in dollars in the private health sector. Scabies and cavities are common among children since their families can’t afford to buy toothpaste and other basic hygiene items. Some are forced to spend several days without showering since access to running water is also extremely irregular.
In fact, Venezuela is now (objectively) one of the worst places in the world to grow up. According to a report released last year by NGO Save the Children, the country ranked 129th out of 175 in the index of dangers for childhood, below places like Nigeria, Haiti or Irak, and the worst-ranked South American country, as well as the one with the sharpest deterioration compared to 2017 in the region. The index measures several indicators, including child mortality rate, malnourishment, access to education, teenage pregnancy and child homicide rate. Just the homicide rate hiked to 26,9 homicides per 100,000 citizens under 19 years old, more than twice the regional average, and almost eight times higher than the world average.
Just the homicide rate hiked to 26,9 homicides per 100,000 citizens under 19 years old, more than twice the regional average.
The overall situation may be even worse since some indicators were calculated with outdated data released by the Maduro administration. For instance, while Save the Children reports that only 15% of Venezuelan children are not enrolled in school (a number still much higher than the regional average), the most recent data gathered by the ENCOVI project, organized by some of the most important Venezuelan universities, indicates that only half of those children in school actually show up for classes on a regular basis.
Venezuelan kids don’t know what it means to be a child. They have no idea what it’s like to know you’ll get a new toy on your birthday or to get some cookies and a glass of milk for an afternoon snack, or a burger to celebrate good grades on a math test. They don’t know, and they don’t care, because they’re too busy worrying about their parents leaving them behind in a crumbling country, or wondering if they’ll eat the next day. Chavismo and the crisis it provoked stole their childhood, and no one will give it back.