Venezuela: Starving children forced to feed off rubbish dumps

24 March 2019, 14:28 | Updated: 24 March 2019, 18:30

The swarm of flies gives the game away.

"Food," one of the starving children calls out at a rubbish dump in Venezuela's second city, Maracaibo.

We see several small hands dig into a bin bag and stuff its contents into their mouths.

What they descend on has disintegrated so much in the sweltering heat that we cannot make out what it is.

One chunk looks like a soggy bit of bread, while another may have been a half-eaten plantain.

One boy gnaws and sucks at an animal bone.

It looks and smells deeply unappetising but the children - and some adults - devour the scraps hungrily and gratefully.

They have become experts at spotting festering, discarded supplies. They are literally lord of flies.

Venezuela has the world's biggest oil reserves - natural resources which should mean that all its citizens live in comfort.

I first spotted 11-year-old Juan Diego sitting on his own, away from the other rubbish dump kids.

His father has gone to Colombia and his mother to Peru to find work. His mother took his two older brothers with her.

He just shrugs when I ask him why he was left behind.

"Who are you living with," I ask him. "I'm on my own," he says in a voice which is far too matter of fact.

How long has he been alone? He replies with one of the saddest couple of sentences I've heard in a long time.

"Too many years," he says. "I've always been alone."

The poor used to provide the basis of President Nicolas Maduro's support, but that is swiftly changing.

In Maracaibo, they have an archetypical Chavista in charge - Zulia state governor, Omar Prieto.

Yet there is plenty of anti-Maduro graffiti as you drive round.

"Maduro the killer" is one inscription we see.

Another, sprayed in giant letters over shop shutters, says "Maduro Motherf****r".

It's a long way from the wholehearted endorsement the Venezuelan leader is used to.

Support for Mr Maduro among the poorest fifth of the population has dropped from roughly 40% in early 2016 to 18% last month, according to statistics compiled by Datanalisis, a respected pollster in Venezuela.

But are the hungry and starving in any position to instigate change in this country? Sadly and cruelly, probably not.

Mr Maduro has repeatedly insisted that his people are not going hungry - despite being shown pictures of some of them scavenging through bins and rubbish tips.

He says Venezuela is suffering from the effects of US sanctions, in an economic war being waged by the country's capitalist enemies.

If it is difficult in the cities, it's a lot harder out in the countryside.

On the outskirts of Maracaibo we meet Erika, who is struggling to bring up her three young boys after her husband died four months ago.

She travels into the city centre, buys cups of coffee and then sells them on in smaller portions to try to make as much money as possible to buy some food for herself and her children.

On average, she says she makes about 2,000 bolivars a day - less than a dollar.

With that she can buy two yuca (a South American vegetable) and a single plantain.

When we see her, she is lighting a fire with one of her last three remaining matches.

Despite living literally from hand to mouth, and the fear many may feel about criticising Mr Maduro and his intelligence agents, Erika is clear about what should happen to the president.

"I think he should go if he can't do anything," she says.