Dead not spared indignities of Venezuela’s crisis

Wenceslao Alvarez’s body lay rotting in his house in Maracaibo until the stench spread up the street. His shamed family had no money to bury him.

Just days before, another family buried Ender Bracho in his own back patio, covering him with a few shovelfuls of earth until the local state authorities finally stepped in with a coffin and a grave.

In February, the corpse of street vendor Francisco Rollos was laid out in front of the city hall in the northwestern city of Turen — a silent but forceful plea for the municipality to take on his burial.

For Venezuela’s poor, the living nightmare created by the country’s economic crisis — which has forced millions to flee — is lingering beyond the grave.

A year before his death, an embolism had left the 78-year-old Alvarez incapacitated. Chicken pox only made the situation worse, and went untreated because of a chronic shortage of medicines.

His agony ended on October 4 in a poor neighborhood in the port city of Maracaibo. His daughter Lisandra asked for help from local authorities to bury him, but no help came.

“The body was in a state of decomposition and the house was stinking. I couldn’t find a way to clean it,” said the 43-year-old laundry worker.

Three days later, a neighboring municipality donated a coffin and a grave. By that time, the stench coming from the house infiltrated the homes all along the street.

“We threw three bags of lime in the coffin and one more on top to contain the smell,” said Lisandra.

A year ago, she had to sell the family refrigerator in order to bury her mother.

Lisandra has had more than her share of woe; in 2014, her police officer son was shot dead.

– Home burial –

Days before Alvarez died, Bracho’s family dug a hole in his backyard and slipped his body inside.

He had succumbed the previous day to blood poisoning — a fate which his relatives said could have been avoided with antibiotics.

Even in life, the 39-year-old mason — with his protruding ribs and gaunt facial features — was already looking like a corpse.

“Where is the government to help the poor? What they are doing is destroying us!” said Bracho’s niece, Milagros. “Look at the state the country is in. We can get nothing.”

Wrapped in a blanket, Bracho’s body was lowered into the backyard pit. His mother Gladys helped cover his remains with some earth.

Neighbors objected, fearing disease could spread if his temporary grave were to end up being his final resting place.

Several hours passed before workers from the Zulia state government showed up with a casket and directions to a gravesite.

– ‘Going day to day’ –

The economic crisis, coupled with state repression, is hitting ordinary Venezuelans hard, with chronic shortages of basic goods and inflation forecast to top 1.3 million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“Ninety percent of the people who come to me look for the cheapest service they can get,” says funeral parlor owner Luis Mora.

“When they come, they have already spent what little resources they have on care and treatments,” he told AFP.

Mora, who owns two Caracas funeral homes, says costs vary from 8,000 to 25,000 bolivars ($130 – $400), set against a minimum monthly salary of $29. That price doesn’t include a gravestone.

Undertakers are also looking to cut costs.

They no longer buy large stocks of formaldehyde, used to preserve bodies, but only acquire it “day by day,” said Mora.

Some situations are even more extreme.

– ‘Like dogs’-

In Bracho’s neighborhood, his undignified end is far from unique, though many others are due to chronic violence.

“There are many deaths… and there is no way to bury them,” said one of his neighbors, who did not want to be identified. “Sometimes it takes 48 hours.”

In 2017, non-governmental organizations recorded some 26,000 violent deaths in Venezuela.

In many cases, the bodies of murder victims are not accepted by funeral homes because they want to avoid the possibility of any disturbances caused by their relatives, said Mora.

For Alvarez, while the neighboring municipality donated the coffin and the grave, it did not provide a hearse to transport his body.

A neighbor took his remains to the cemetery in a van. He also brought concrete slabs and bricks for the grave.

Twelve slabs usually would have been needed to complete the job. But there were only two.