LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Protests are continuing in Venezuela against the government of Nicolas Maduro. This week, elderly demonstrators with walking sticks or in wheelchairs braved pepper spray from government security forces. Over the past two months, more than 35 people have been killed in the continuing unrest. And as the political situation deteriorates, so does the humanitarian one. We're joined now by Juan Forero of The Wall Street Journal who just published a deeply reported piece entitled simply "Venezuela Is Starving."
JUAN FORERO: Oh, thanks, Lulu. It's great to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Juan, let's start with the political situation. We're seeing continuing protests and the government refusing a call for early elections. Is there a way out of this crisis?
FORERO: Yeah, I mean, exactly - the problem is that the government hasn't permitted elections. There were elections that were supposed to have taken place in December for governors and mayors and so forth, and that was suspended. And then there was also a recall referendum, which would be a recall on Maduro, and that was also scrapped. Now the opposition is really just pushing for presidential elections because there's a sense that Maduro isn't going to permit them. They're supposed to happen before the end of 2018, but the government hasn't said whether they're going to happen. And the opposition basically wants to ensure that this vote happens.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to talk about your reporting on the humanitarian situation. You focus specifically on hunger in your reporting, and you had some just shocking images of babies, children with unnaturally skinny arms. Tell me what you found. What did your reporting discover?
FORERO: Well, look, I - you know, we wanted to focus on the issue of food because Venezuela is a country that doesn't have enough money to import food. Imports are down by 70 percent - food imports - since 2013, and it's a country where the agro sector has almost collapsed because of nationalizations, because of seizures of farms. And so it's a country where the situation for people trying to find food is just very, very difficult. There are studies, first of all, that show that 75 percent of Venezuelans have lost weight, and the average amount of weight they've lost is 19 pounds. That is in 2016.
And then we knew that there was a situation - a serious situation going on with children, you know, small children, infants, who are not getting the nourishment that they need. We know this because of doctors and hospitals, because of the work that Catholic charities have done and also because of nutritionists and experts in this issue who are trying to get the word out. But you go into some communities or some slums in Venezuela - it's very easy to find children who are hungry and, in some cases, find families who've lost children, lost babies because they weren't able to find the high-protein formula that underweight infants need.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does the Venezuelan government say? What is their response to the situation of the population?
FORERO: Well, we'd love to talk to the Venezuelan government. And every time we do a story, we try to send emails to them and letters to them and call them. They never want to respond to anything, and they don't respond to this kind of thing. This is generally par for the course. Many people who study the situation in Venezuela and also know about statistics in other countries say Venezuela - the situation there, the social situation there - is like a country at war. And of course, Venezuela is not at war, and yet it has a situation where you have children who are hungry. You have shortages of food, and you have an economy that has contracted 27 percent.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were you shocked, though, by what you saw?
FORERO: It was shocking, and it was mortifying, and it was sad. And it really just - it made me angry to see children in a situation like this. While I met families with babies, there was one family that really struck a chord with me because there were three children there, and the eldest was 11. And the boy is just so thin. His arms are just rail thin. And he told me, you know, I don't eat so my brothers - my little brothers can eat. And his little brothers are - you know, don't look as unhealthy as he does, you know?
But the people that I was with who took me to meet him were from the Catholic church and who know about nutrition, they said that boy, if he doesn't get the nourishment that he needs, he could die. And so it was just horrific to see this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Juan Forero of The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.
FORERO: Thank you.
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