The streets of Caracas are full of children and teenagers who run, laugh, bathe in dirty rivers, hunt for food in garbage cans and also take drugs - these abandoned youngsters are yet another aspect of the severe social and economic crisis gripping the oil-producing nation that is Venezuela.
For two months EFE walked the streets of the Venezuelan capital observing day after day the children who, in their majority, live in public areas of eastern Caracas, where besides begging they have created an elaborate survival system.
In one of those outdoor areas was Liliana, 17, almost ready to give birth. Two months later she was still there, but with her little Angel, recently born at Concepcion Palacios Maternity Hospital, the country’s oldest, another institution damaged by the crisis.
Soon after giving birth she found she had syphilis and her baby had been slightly affected by the sexually transmitted disease.
No institution, public or private, has figures or even an estimate of how many children and teens now live on the streets of Venezuela, but the situation is evident at first sight.
Miguel Rebolledo, coordinator of the Domingo Savio Orphanage that takes in homeless teenagers, told EFE there has been a dramatic increase in the abandonment of children in the country, above all by mothers, though many report a total absence of the father.
“We have a case of a divided family: a woman decided to abandon her eight children - I have the two eldest here, ages 11 and 12, and in accepting them I realized the eldest was doing badly in school because he has to look after his littlest brothers and sisters. Their father sometimes comes to visit them,” Rebolledo said.
Also living on the streets is Paola, who left home at age 13 and is now 15. She says she is happier there than at home, where her mother’s boyfriend would always tell her to get lost, while outside the home she can do whatever she wants.
She said, however, that “the worst that has happened to me on the streets is someone wanting to kill me and almost succeeding. See this scar on my neck? This big guy thought I reported him to the cops about whatever weird things he was up to - so one day he followed me with some friends, grabbed a bottle, broke it and jabbed the sharp end in my neck.”
Then they tied her up and threw her in the Guaire River that divides Caracas in two and into which pour all the city’s sewers and waste water. It is a miracle that Paola is still alive.
The youngsters on the streets are happy when they are given food but, as EFE could see, their greatest joy is when they receive money, because then they run off to buy the drugs that give them a reprieve from this world.
Barefoot and unprotected, many have injured hands and feet from nails and glass, while others have been hit by cars and lived to tell the tale.
Children and teens are often seen sleeping so soundly on park benches or just on sidewalks that horns honking, dogs barking and passers-by talking don’t wake them up.
In 1998, in his first press conference after winning the presidential election, the late president and leader of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez , said, “I forbid myself, Hugo Chavez forbids himself, to let children live on the streets of Venezuela, I forbid it, there can never be children living on the streets of Venezuela.”