Infant deaths soar amid Venezuela crisis

Venezuelan opposition activists clashed with riot police during a protest in Caracas against President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday - the latest in a series of violent demonstrations.
Venezuelan opposition activists clashed with riot police during a protest in Caracas against President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday - the latest in a series of violent demonstrations.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Dire shortage of drugs, among other items, exacting heavy toll on population's health

CARACAS • Venezuela's collapsing economy is taking a toll on its population's health, with more children and women dying and various diseases skyrocketing amid persistent shortages of everything from medicine to drinking water.

The Health Ministry said deaths of infants under the age of one soared by 30 per cent in 2016, a year when hospitals and protesters complained of severe shortages of medical supplies.

Deaths of mothers linked to childbirth soared by two-thirds meanwhile, according to the data published by the ministry - the latest such figures since 2015.

It said 11,466 babies died in 2016, up from 8,812 the year before. The report gave no comparative rate in relation to the number of births.

Cases of malaria rose by 76 per cent to more than 240,000.

The collapse in prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports has left it short of cash to import medicine and basic goods.

  • 30% 

    Percentage increase in the number of infant deaths - babies under the age of one - in Venezuela last year

The Venezuelan Medical Federation says hospitals have only 3 per cent of the medicines and supplies that they need to operate normally.

The opposition blames President Nicolas Maduro for the crisis.

On April 1, deadly unrest broke out when his opponents protested, demanding elections.

And on Wednesday, young protesters lobbed bottles and bags of faeces at soldiers who fought with tear gas to block the latest march in more than a month of nationwide protests against Mr Maduro.

The extraordinary scenes, in what was dubbed the "Sh*t March" on the main highway through the capital Caracas, came as thousands of opposition supporters again poured onto the streets decrying Venezuela's economic crisis and demanding elections.

"These kids live in a dictatorship; they have no other option but to protest," said Ms Maria Montilla, 49, behind lines of young people with masks, slingshots and makeshift wooden shields. Many carried stones and "Poopootov cocktails" - faeces stuffed into small glass bottles - that they threw when National Guard troops blocked their path, firing tear gas and turning water cannon on the crowds.

"There's nothing explosive here. It's our way of saying, 'Get lost, Maduro, you're useless!' " said one youth, who asked not to be named, between tossing bottles of faeces.

At least 39 people have died in the unrest since early last month, including protesters, government sympathisers, bystanders and security forces. Hundreds have also been hurt and arrested.

Human rights group Penal Forum says 1,991 people have been detained since April 1, with 653 still behind bars.

Opposition leaders have complained that the government is processing 250 detainees via military courts.

Mr Maduro says his foes are seeking a coup with encouragement from the United States. The opposition, which enjoys majority support after years in the shadow of the ruling Socialist Party, says the authorities are denying a solution to Venezuela's crisis by thwarting a referendum, delaying local elections and refusing to bring forward the 2018 presidential vote.

It is seeking to vary tactics to keep momentum going and supporters energised. The government has accused the opposition of breaking international treaties on biological and chemical weapons by throwing faeces.

Mr Maduro is seeking to create a new super body called a "constituent assembly", with authority to rewrite the Constitution and shake up public powers.

His opponents dismiss it as an attempt to keep the socialists in power by establishing a biased new assembly.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2017, with the headline 'Infant deaths soar amid Venezuela crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe