Photo: José Díaz

“Jhon David, that’s my name,” said the eight-year-old kid, dryly. His voice was numb and so were his eyes. His attitude, gestures and vocabulary made him look like a teenager in a body just a little over a meter high. Defiant, the kid firmly refused to be intimidated by the others.

The streets of Caracas host children as young as five years old. They should be in kindergarten, but instead they’re begging for food, learning how to survive, taking drugs, having sex, stealing or even committing murder. This is a reality that Maduro’s government refuses to acknowledge at any cost.

“I don’t wanna see you hitting my brother, bruja,” he angrily yelled to another nine-year-old.

The 400 blows

On Tuesday, September 25, five children stood in line as they waited for the Mamá Rosa community kitchen to open. The Food Ministry keeps this place in the Fundacomunal building in Chacaíto.

The streets of Caracas host children as young as five years old.

They arrived at 7:00 a.m. and waited impatiently until 9:30 a.m. for an arepa.

In those two hours, Jhon David was always active, leaping over the boulevard’s benches, angry at everyone, offering punches all over the place, especially to defend his five-year-old brother, his streetmate.

“Where are you from? Where are your parents?” were some of the questions that hung in the air, while Jhon David spouted insults like the bigshot in the block. “Nobody left me. The adults take care of me.” The adults were just another group of teenagers who weren’t even paying attention to whatever Jhon David was doing.

Jhon’s five-year-old brother started crying because another kid who was playing with his plastic car, hit him. Everything happened in a matter of seconds. A pocket calculator they found in the garbage caused the dispute. Jhon’s little brother took it from the boy who was playing and, although seemingly peaceful, he reacted by pushing him and hitting him as hard as possible in the head, leaving an instant bump that nobody cared for.

Working the streets, keeping an eye on the stores

Dozens of homeless children and teenagers go to Fundacomunal every morning. Many sleep in the Sabana Grande Boulevard itself, or near Las Mercedes; in the banks of the Guaire river or around the Sambil Mall in Chacao.

There’s a girl among them nicknamed Caramelo. She’s reserved and quiet, doesn’t answer questions about her origin. She’s pregnant and judging by the size of the belly she’s quite close to childbirth. Her baby’s already kicking visibly, and she looks exhausted and worried. 

“She doesn’t accept help. She doesn’t want attention, she didn’t undergo prenatal control. Her case is very delicate,” said Rubén Loaiza, head of the Municipal Council for the Rights of Children and Teenagers of Chacao, CMDNA.

During that period, they counted a total of 86 minors in mendicity.

Between mid-2017 and May this year, the CMDNA along with UNICEF, carried out fieldwork in Chacao, up the border with the Libertador Municipality in Chacaíto, precisely where the Fundacomunal building stands. During that period, they counted a total of 86 minors in mendicity.

None of them lived in the municipality. They came from Higuerote, Baruta, Río Chico, Santa Lucía, Charallave, Santa Teresa del Tuy, Ocumare del Tuy, Petare, Cúa, Guarenas, even other states such as Carabobo, Lara, Vargas, Yaracuy and Anzoátegui.

Commercial activity and the restaurants seduce them and “help them survive”.

“Right now, they’re not begging because there’s violence or child abuse at home. This isn’t even about drugs or alcoholism anymore. They’re often out in the street because there’s no food in their homes. Hunger is the reason they’re here,” said Loaiza.

Hunger is the reason they’re here.

Jhon David got his arepa after 9:30 a.m. He got in first along with the rest of his group. They ate in anguish. “If people don’t help us, we go to sleep without eating,” the girl who was with them managed to say. “Angimar, my name’s Angimar and those two are my brothers,” she said.

These three siblings were the oldest and the thinnest of the group of five. Their clothes weren’t worn out, but it was obvious they hadn’t changed them in several days. None of them was older than 11.

“What do we do all day? We beg. Some people give us, others chase us out of the shops,” Jhon David said laughter. He’s got lots of energy and strength after his meal, and managed to get into a fistfight with the kid who’d hit his little brother.

These scenes are a common sight in the Sabana Grande Bvd. Some shop owners say they prefer to give food to the children: “If you don’t, they won’t go; they steal things, pull knives, threaten you. Some of them are violent,” said Carlos Salas.

Street routines

Some children have been seen robbing people with staplers. They place them beneath their shirt and pretend that they’re armed.

The youngest children move alone, to inspire even more pity. But at night they sleep with the teenagers, who pick fights and have sex in front of them. “They take care of us,” said Jhon David again, refusing to talk about his parents.

The youngest children move alone, to inspire even more pity. But at night they sleep with the teenagers, who pick fights and have sex in front of them.

Hernán Matute, professor at the Cátedra Libre Anti-Drogas, said that this represents a serious concern, because “that protection provided by adults can be tied to sexual abuse and addiction”.

In order to survive their precarious situation, the kids join groups or gangs. A couple of gangs, like “Los cachorros” and “Los enanos” have become famous for their crimes. A nameless group stands out because its members have their hair dyed yellow and they’re always barefoot.

Loaiza, who’s also a psychologist, said that they’ve seen as the children arrive in the morning with clean clothes and shoes, which they later take off and store in the sewers. They spend most of their day in shorts and undershirts. The children say that if people see their clean clothes, they get nothing. If they’re barefoot, they get food and things to sell.

Many of those kids, most of them from Los Valles del Tuy, don’t stay in the street at night, they go home. “My mom knows I’m in the street and that I take some food back home,” said 16-year-old Santiago, who’s been out of the school system for three years.

Unfulfilled promises

On October 13, Rachelle Krygier and Anthony Faiola published an article in The Washington Post titled “A humanitarian crisis in Venezuela? Nothing to see here, government says,” where they speak of an undeniable truth. Many Venezuelan children returned to school in September with worn uniforms and holes in their shoes, some of them thinner due to the lack of food. However, State channels showed images of impeccably dressed children happily returning to school. The reports didn’t even mention the financial deficit that’s apparently bound to force hundreds of school in the country to shut down. Krygier and Faiola didn’t mention that children like Jhon David and Angimar didn’t return to school at all, as the streets became their classroom.

“I hereby promise that I won’t allow a single homeless child in Venezuela; I’ll stop calling myself Hugo Chávez Frías if I fail.”

When late President Hugo Chávez won the elections in 1998, he gave a public speech in the Ateneo de Caracas building. At the moment, people believed and cheered the words of a messiah. In front of the crowd, he said: “I hereby promise that I won’t allow a single homeless child in Venezuela; I’ll stop calling myself Hugo Chávez Frías if I fail.”

Once upon a time,  social plans like Negra Hipólita Mission, created in 2006, sheltered many kids. But they couldn’t shelter them all, because homeless kids never disappeared although their numbers dwindled for a while. Now, with the social and economic crisis, they’re more visible and they suffer more than ever.

The Washington Post also reports what President Nicolás Maduro said before the UN General Assembly last month: “Venezuela is the victim of world media attacks designed to construct an alleged humanitarian crisis so as to justify a military intervention.” He and the rest of his clique don’t believe there’s a crisis. However, they seem to be bent on holding on to an unsustainable model that has caused a profound crisis.

The most painful part is that the government talks about a new man, a better man that will emerge from this political model. These children are the new men: the ones who face an uncertain future, devoid of wellbeing and safety.

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