I met Fernando Arvelo (pseudonym), a 74-year-old Venezuelan, at a soup kitchen in Cúcuta, the main Colombian city across the border from Táchira state in Venezuela. Fernando moved to Táchira from his home state – a 20-hour drive – soon after his wife, children, and grandchildren went abroad fleeing the crisis. He did not want to be a burden for his family, and felt he could not start over elsewhere at this point in his life.
Fernando crosses the border every day, walking in stifling heat of up to 40 degrees Celsius, to eat at the soup kitchen. “How much time will I be able to stand this?” he told me in a broken voice as he stared into the plastic plate with rice, potato, and meat.
Fernando is one of many older people left behind as a growing number of Venezuelans flee the country. While most coverage of Venezuela’s worsening humanitarian crisis has focused on children, with growing levels of child malnutrition, the elderly are also very vulnerable. Several studies by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations have shown that older people are disproportionately impacted by humanitarian crises, and Venezuela is no exception.
CONVITE, a human rights organization that monitors the situation of older people in Venezuela, conducted a study weighing 267 older people in Miranda state between December 2016 and November 2017. It found they lost an average of 1.3 kilograms per month.
Fernando told me he used to weigh 85 kilograms, and now weighs less than 50. He struggles to find medicines for heart and respiratory problems, glaucoma, and cataracts. At times, he’s had to purchase and take expired medication, which was all he could find.
Without family support, faced with vulnerabilities because of their advanced age, many older people in Venezuela endure extremely harsh conditions. Venezuelan media outlets have published images and accounts of older people queuing for hours to buy food or basic supplies and collect their pensions, or protesting for the retirement benefits and pension plans they are entitled to. There have been some reports of older people who died while queuing for their social security payments.
In the Americas, the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons, which entered into force in 2017, provides that states “shall adopt all necessary measures to ensure the safety and rights of older persons in situations of risk, including humanitarian emergencies.” They should also adopt assistance measures specific to the needs of older people associated with emergencies.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights recently ruled, for the first time, that older people have a “right to increased protection” through “differentiated measures.” The court highlighted “the importance of increasing the visibility of older persons as subjects of rights who enjoy special protection” for, among other things, “comprehensive care.”
If the Venezuelan government continues to show it is unwilling or unable to ensure older people have priority access to food and medicine, Latin American leaders who have expressed concern about Venezuela’s crisis should invoke regional standards that highlight the importance of caring for older people to press Venezuelan authorities to do so and offer humanitarian aid directed specifically at older people. They should let all the Fernandos out there know they will not be left behind.