Salvaging Hope: 1 Woman's Refusal To Be Defeated By The Crisis In Venezuela

Dec 6, 2019
Originally published on December 6, 2019 4:52 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Every now and then you have a conversation you know you will never forget. For NPR correspondent Philip Reeves, that happened in Venezuela. It is where he recently met someone on the streets of Caracas who refuses to be defeated by the crisis there.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: I meet her by chance. She's sitting on a wall in a grimy T-shirt and sweatpants. In her hand, she has an old pair of sneakers that she's carefully cleaned up.

ISILEYDY GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She wants me to buy these. That's how our conversation starts. Isileydy Goicochea isn't from this city. She's from a small tourist town on Venezuela's Caribbean coast called Rio Chico. It's about three hours from here. For years, she was happy to stay there because life there was great, she says.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She ran a couple of food stores.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She met people from around the world. She posted pictures of her kids on Facebook. Goicochea says she started commuting to Caracas about two years ago. Venezuela's economy had collapsed. She lost her food businesses. She sold her hair. That brought in a little cash. It wasn't enough.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: I had to take to the streets, she says. Goicochea is about to turn 40. Her husband died of cancer a while back, leaving her to raise five kids on her own. She has a small house back in Rio Chico, where the rest of the family stays.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: In Caracas, she sleeps outside in a gas station, she says. We talk some more. Goicochea explains that she came here to the capital because there's money here. Where there's money, there's trash. She's one of a group who together rummage through the garbage, retrieving anything of value and cleaning it up. She doesn't do that back in Rio Chico, she explains...

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...Because people there are now so poor they don't have much to throw away. After a few days, when she has a couple of bags full of stuff from the trash, she takes the bus home to try to sell or barter it there. This sounds like simple recycling, right? Not quite. I asked Goicochea where she gets her food from.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: The garbage, she says. She eats discarded yuca - that's a root vegetable - and plantain bananas and lots and lots of chicken skin. As she tells me this, she looks straight at me.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Don't cry, she says. Don't cry. God will help us. Someone will help us. I ask if she ever gets Venezuela's heavily subsidized government food boxes.

GOICOCHEA: (Laughter, speaking in Spanish).

REEVES: I paid for some, she says, waited more than two months, and they never arrived. When Goicochea gets sick or cuts her hands, the garbage often serves as a first aid cabinet. She lists the medicines she looks out for.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: They're past their sell-by dates, but we take them anyway, she explains. When her kids need clothes, again, she turns to the trash. Her 14-year-old daughter needs a school blouse for the next semester.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: I haven't found one yet, but I'm sure I will, says Goicochea You hear that note of hope? That happens a lot in this conversation.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: In fact, Goicochea says hope is what keeps her going.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She says she hopes to eat a steak one day that's not come from the trash, to have fresh fish with guacamole....

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...And to drink lots of Coca-Cola. She hopes Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, will fall.

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: We have to get rid of him, she says. She hopes her kids have a better life than her...

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...And that they'll one day understand what I did for them, she says. I ask a final question before we part. How does anyone keep hope alive in a situation like hers?

GOICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Ah, she says, don't underestimate people.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas.

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