AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Venezuela's main border crossing with Colombia has reopened for the first time in four months. That's made it easier for Venezuelans to get food and medicine. The country is suffering what international aid groups call a humanitarian disaster, one that President Nicolas Maduro refuses to recognize. So as John Otis reports, local charities are the ones trying to help the needy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At this soup kitchen in the western city of Maracaibo, Venezuelans give thanks before lining up for lunch.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: It's meager fare. Each person receives a bottle of milk and a few spoonfuls of rice mixed with eggs and vegetables. Run by the Catholic Church, this program used to provide full meals. But amid Venezuela's economic meltdown, many of the businesses that used to donate food have closed, says volunteer Sara Cooper.
SARA COOPER: So to get 10 kilos of potatoes, 10 kilos of carrots, sometimes we don't finish it. We don't complete it.
OTIS: You don't get enough.
COOPER: Right, Right. So we'll have to work with what we have.
OTIS: The soup kitchen is small, yet it's come under scrutiny from the Maduro government. Venezuela's political opposition, which is trying to force Maduro from power, is constantly talking about the need for international aid. As a result, aid workers say their efforts are often misconstrued by officials as anti-government activism.
FRANKLIN MONTILLA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In fact, Franklin Montilla, a cook at the soup kitchen, says bureaucrats recently tried to shut it down, claiming unsanitary conditions. Critics say Maduro refuses to declare a humanitarian emergency because it would signal that his government has failed. But his position makes it legally impossible for international agencies to bring in the vast amount of aid that the country needs.
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PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In a recent speech, Maduro insisted that allies like China, India, Russia and Turkey are supplying hundreds of tons of aid. But aid workers in Maracaibo claim they haven't seen any of it and that the burden on local charities is growing heavier.
GUSTAVO RINCON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Among them is the Samaritan Foundation that distributes baby formula, antibiotics and other supplies in Maracaibo. Its director, Gustavo Rincon, shows me around his office, which thanks to nationwide blackouts has no electricity.
RINCON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Due to a lack of spare parts, Rincon says none of the foundation's five vehicles are working. Even if they were, gas shortages often prevent him from delivering supplies. He hasn't been to a nearby leper colony for five months, so I agree to take him in my taxi.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: First we stop by a grocery to load up on eggs, plantains and chicken for the patients.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Gustavo, Gustavo.
OTIS: Upon our arrival, Rincon receives a hero's welcome. Food donations are so rare that the patients, who are missing fingers ears and, in one case, both legs, often share it with malnourished nurses.
RINCON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Thieves recently stole the electric cables, leaving the facility without air conditioning in the 100-degree heat. Some of the beds have been moved outdoors to take advantage of a slight breeze.
Like, they don't get Red Cross help or United Nations or World Food Programme.
RINCON: No, no any organized - public organization or international organization are taking care of them. They completely abandoned.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: That's why despite his own difficulties, Rincon promises he'll be back. As he leaves, one of the patients says, may God bless you. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Maracaibo, Venezuela.
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