Shadow of sanctions looms largest over Venezuela’s sick

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In sanctions-scourged Venezuela, the sick suffer the most. Five-year-old Zabdiel needs a bone marrow transplant. Venezuela’s government has stopped paying his treatment, blaming sanctions by the United States — which is set to add an oil embargo Sunday.

Zabdiel’s case is common in Venezuela, where families want answers as their sick children await life-saving transplants.  The child’s lymphoblastic leukaemia is a nightmare made all the more acute because he has had to be treated with out-of-date medicines — the only drugs available in Venezuela. He has already suffered a relapse and his transplant cannot wait.

“In December, we were called by the oil company PDVSA to tell us that everything was ready, that there was a donor in Italy. And then in January, they told me my son could not leave because of the economic blockade because there’s no more money,” said his mother Ani Camacho, in tears.

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PDVSA, the state oil company, runs a key humanitarian assistance program for transplant cases. It was directly targeted by US sanctions last month, and said the lives of 25 patients, mostly children, who were transferred to Rome to receive bone marrow were at risk.

Socialist President Nicolas Maduro accuses the US sanctions of being responsible for blocking PDVSA’s “humanitarian assistance” program. From Sunday the US will no longer buy Venezuelan crude, an additional attempt to economically suffocate Maduro’s regime.

But the shortages of medicines and medical equipment pre-date the first sanctions applied in 2017. The fall in oil prices in recent years has had a major impact. “Before the blockade, this was already coming, a decline, a lack of government,” said Ani, 40.

Enfeebled by his illness, Zabdiel interacts little with the outside world. With a handful of Lego pieces, an aquarium and a television, his parents are trying to rescue his childhood. According to Venezuelan consultancy Ecoanalitica, imports of crude by the United States that topped $66 billion in 2012 were worth only $7.8 billion this year before the embargo.

It is sure to worsen the crisis in a country that relies on oil exports for 96 percent of its revenues, with the US its main customer. Seven minors who needed bone marrow transplants have died since September, said attorney Katherine Martinez, who represents the parents of several of the patients.

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Martinez said PVDSA paid for operations in an agreement with Italy, which was suspended in 2018 because of the oil company’s debts. Until then, 360 operations had been carried out.

Mama, don’t struggle anymore

Nestor Urbaneja, 14, dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player and his career was starting to take shape when in 2017 he was diagnosed with bone marrow aplasia, a rare disease. He too needs a transplant, but there is no compatible donor in Venezuela.

Today, the teenager no longer wants to take the drugs his mother, Angi Teran, has to battle desperately to get. “Mama, don’t struggle anymore, you’re tired and I’m tired,” her son told her. But she won’t give up, she says, recently launching a campaign to draw attention to the plight of a score of teenagers who, like her son, need transplants.

PDVSA officials told her they could offer no help “because of the blockade”. She now hopes to be able to take her son to Argentina where her brother has emigrated. Maduro estimates US sanctions have cost the economy $30 billion, while the opposition places the country’s dramatic economic collapse directly at his door.

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According to the United Nations, seven million Venezuelans — 24 percent of the population — are urgently in need of humanitarian aid.

Food Crisis

As well as the difficulties facing her 14-year-old son Jerson — who suffers aplastic anemia — Verioska Martinez has to cope with chronic food shortages due to hyperinflation. Caring for her sick child, who has been ill since he was a baby, prevents her from working — and the family is increasingly dependent on the government-funded food parcel program known as CLAP.

But what Maduro promised in 2016 would be a twice-monthly food box delivery to six million families, now often takes several months to arrive and has ever-fewer products, says Martinez, 33. She says she is just another Venezuelan left helpless by the political jousting of Maduro and his opposition rival Juan Guaido.

“I think one is just spreading propaganda, and the other has become incapable of governing. We are left with a noose around our necks,” she said.

© Agence France-Presse