Génesis Carrero Soto.
Additional reporting by Carlos Camacho in Caracas.
“That is the PSUV ruling party local,” the Alimenta la Solidaridad organizer tells a group of reporters, pointing to a nondescript house with a couple of Maduro posters hanging outside of it.
“That is as far as the Maduro regime can go around here,” he chuckles. But people who want to see how Feed the Solidarity helps the poorest Venezuelans still have a long, uphill way to go. While the PSUV only ventures as far as the main thoroughfare, near cops, bodegas, and public transportation, the Alimenta kitchen is three blocks uphill, dirt path, and some cement steps, in a dangerous neighborhood where, miraculously, nobody messes with the outsiders or aid recipients.
Maduro has been ratcheting up repression since the 2014 violent street protests. Now, he is being investigated by the United Nations and the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed between 2014 to date. Attacking NGOs, however, is a new chapter in a violent repression spiral that has left 18,000 extrajudicial executions (according to Human Rights Watch) since 2016 alone.
The effort led by Roberto Patiño, a 32-year-old engineer affiliated with the Primero Justicia center-right party, went farther and further than any Maduro initiative. And for that, they are being punished.
The NGO was founded in 2016 when Roberto was just 28 and installed its first dining room in the popular sector of La Vega, which benefited 60 children.
By 2020, the organization managed to be present in 14 states of Venezuela, with 239 dining rooms in which 25,000 children are given one meal a day (sometimes more). But on November 20, the attacks began: Bank accounts got blocked, workers harassed, and Patiño had to go underground.
Maduro has been moving against NGOs since 2019 when National Assembly President Juan Guaido first claimed the mantle of interim President of Venezuela. To the regime, those organizations were an extension of the Guaido administration.
During the COVID-19 quarantine, Alimenta La Solidaridad changed its logistics and, together with a group of volunteers, began to bring lunches to the homes of the beneficiaries.
But on November 25, National Police agents raided the parental home of Patiño and a one-time office of the NGO in El Rosal (the same location where journalists arrived for a field trip some years ago). That day, Guaido denounced the harassment by the regime against NGOs Alimenta La Solidaridad and Caracas Mi Convive and their directors. Guaido warned: “This is a new violation of the human rights of Venezuelans by the Maduro dictatorship.”
The next day, November 26, the organization denounced that the Superintendence of the Institutions of the Banking Sector (Sudeban) froze all their bank accounts, a measure that they assured, affects more than 25,000 children who benefit from the organization.
“All our bank accounts got frozen. These actions seriously compromise the operations of our dining rooms and put at risk the care of more than 25,000 Venezuelan children and their families,” they said in a statement.
“Before the dining room…if we had breakfast, we did not have lunch, and if there was lunch, we forgot about dinner,” Granados told El Pitazo. The one in La Vega benefits around 700 children.
On the other side of the parish, in Los Pinos, Gabriela Vega, coordinator of the whole area, confirms that the initiative is not limited to feeding the children. In her home, she runs a dining room where 120 children and 15 people with disabilities get fed, and, with the support of the entire community, they managed to recover a space that was once a garbage dump in Los Pinos and converted into a basketball court and a theater for community activities.
“We have fought in poor communities so that we can move forward together with Alimenta la Solidaridad, that is why today my support is 100% for them because solidarity is not a crime, it cannot be,” said Vega.
Vega says most of the mothers benefited in the program are unemployed, and, for many, preparing food and helping the community has become a reason to carry on despite their burdens, help each other, amongst barrio violence.
Like Judith Arcia, who did not greet her neighbors and remained locked up, but is now a community leader in her zone. Years ago, she set up a dining room of Alimenta la Solidaridad and fed 109 children.
“Roberto himself told me that if I dared to have a dining room, and I said yes. He promised to come on a Tuesday and did not come, so I thought he was just another politician. But the next day, he arrived with a food truck, and now I have four years with my dining room,” Judith said.
Yeniree Azuaje tells a similar tale. She is the mother of a dining room leader and coordinates the seven spaces of Alimenta la Solidaridad in the sector of Caricuao, where 405 children get fed. “This organization opened emotional doors for me, taught me to be strong and to see that one can do more for oneself and others,” she said.
Today, she participates in a women leadership program, takes care of community activities, and is the mother of her three children and all the children she hugs with emotion when she hands them their food at the door of the house where she lives.
“How do we tell a child that we won’t give them any more food? How do we tell them that they will go hungry again?” Yeniree asked herself before her eyes let out a tear.
In at least 24 spaces in Caracas, the collaborating mothers, the leaders, and the families who have benefited from the social program joined together in prayer chains for the maintenance of the operations of the 25,000 soup kitchens that are under the umbrella of the organization whose bank accounts were frozen last November 20.
In addition to the prayer, the leaders of these spaces made a request for food from their communities. Since 2016, when the organization was founded, the dynamics of helping these soup kitchens implies the delivery of a week’s worth of food every Tuesday but, the impossibility of using their resources limits the allocations and puts the lunches of 25,000 children at risk.
The Sunday, food of all kinds got collected for the four soup kitchens located in the El Recreo parish, where 335 children fed, not counting the breastfeeding mothers, the disabled, and the vulnerable adolescents supported by the program.
Eveling Salazar is in charge of 72 children in a dining room in a housing project in Las Acacias. She is completely dedicated to this work. She not only fears that so many children may run out of food but that she may become unemployed and lose her only income for her family.
The mothers whose children get benefited in these spaces ask all Venezuelans to join not only in the help but also in the request to let them work in peace under the premise that solidarity is not a crime.
Agni Marquez feeds her children daily with the lunches of the program, she is so worried that the dining room will disappear, so she joined in helping with the collection.
“It is an important help. I work on my own, but it is so difficult, and it would be much more difficult without the dining room,” she said.
In other communities, they continue to collect food and ask those close to these spaces, which are widely known in the neighborhoods of Caracas, for all the possible collaboration to continue preparing food for the children.
“We are all the visible face of a project that is not only food, that is nothing but a help for the people. That allows us to weave networks of help, leadership, and sustainable ideas to progress in the community,” said Marisol Flores, representative, and collaborator of the 54th dining room in Pinto Salinas.