Ice House

Critical Operación: A Group of Venezuelan Ex-Pats Fights a Crisis Back Home

What started as an informal drive for medical supplies grew into Houston-based Operación Saludos a Venezuela.

By Jasmina Kelemen July 18, 2017 Published in the August 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Maria Cristina Manrique de Henning with her son Pablo

When we met Danielle Perez in April, she’d spent most of this year on the neurosurgical floor at J.M. de los Ríos Children’s Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, sharing a single room with as many as three other mothers, where they cared for their babies, all of whom were born with spina bifida. The babies’ skulls had swollen to dangerous proportions as they awaited surgery to drain the fluid building around their brains. They were receiving antibiotics intravenously to stave off potentially lethal infections, but that was about to end.

The hospital had informed the women that it had run out of Meropenem, an antibiotic used to treat meningitis and pneumonia. Perez had scoured the city for the drug and found it at a price that was impossibly out-of-reach for any of the impoverished women. Asked what she was going to do, the 19-year-old single mother of twins shrugged and looked away.

Medicines and other staple items have nearly disappeared in Venezuela, as lower oil prices, triple-digit inflation and strict currency-exchange controls have hobbled the nation’s economy. Home to the biggest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela has only about 15 percent of the medicines it needs, according to the country’s Pharmaceutical Federation. Infant mortality rose 30 percent last year, and maternal deaths jumped 65 percent. The self-proclaimed Socialist government under President Nicolas Maduro denies there’s an emergency and doesn’t allow global aid organizations to send donations through its tightly controlled ports.

A few days after Perez learned that the hospital had run out of Meropenem, Prepara Familia, a Venezuelan volunteer group that collects donations for families at J.M. de los Ríos, posted on Twitter about her and her 4-month-old son, Dylan, making a direct appeal for the medicine. In doing so, the group tapped into a burgeoning worldwide network of grassroots organizations and individual donors that has sprung into action in response to the humanitarian crisis. Much of the aid is supplied by private donors in Venezuelan-immigrant communities that rely on travelers with overstuffed duffel bags and small-box courier services to deliver goods directly.

One well-connected woman’s garage in Southside Place serves as the Houston hub for this unofficial aid pipeline. Maria Cristina Manrique de Henning moved to Texas from Caracas in 2001 and has remained politically active in her native country from afar. The medical crisis that’s gripped the country has galvanized her and her close friends to focus their efforts on humanitarian aid.

It all started in January of last year, when an acquaintance planning to return to Caracas for a medical school reunion said former classmates were telling harrowing  stories about shortages of not just specialized medicines but basic items such as gauze, latex gloves and surgical instruments. Manrique and her cohorts banded together to gather donations by putting collection boxes where Venezuelans gather, at spots including Cilantro’s Arepa Grill in Katy and Tuttopane Bakery in the Energy Corridor, to send to doctors attending the reunion. The response from Houston’s Venezuelan community of about 11,000 was immediate. “It was like a Costco in my garage,” she said.

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Volunteer Katherine McElroy packs a box of donations.

That informal drive grew into Houston-based Operación Saludos a Venezuela (OSaV). Last year, the group raised more than $25,000 in humanitarian aid and sent the country more than 10,000 gloves, syringes, needles and sutures. “We tried to be as thorough as we could, but at the beginning we were not. We felt like we were running against time,” said Manrique. “Now we know the emergency we can help may be two months from now, not this week.”

OSaV holds popular community bazaars to raise funds, while focusing on building relationships with medical distributors, which can supply specialized equipment, such as heart stents and prescription medications, in bulk. Much of what OSaV collects goes to Prepara Familia, the group that helped Perez and her child.

“This crisis has brought us lots of solidarity,” said Katherine Martinez, Prepara Familia’s founder. Her organization, which has a dozen volunteers, give or take, has opened a new collection center to warehouse donations.

Most of those who receive supplies from abroad keep a lower profile, afraid to antagonize the government, which has publicly arrested doctors for accepting donations and blocked large-scale shipments of medicines from international organizations like Catholic charity Caritas.

Dylan received the medicine he needed and was operated on in May. He’s now home from the hospital. Perez is grateful for the critical assistance the boy received, which has helped to manage his condition. “It’s a big help,” she said. Still: “Surviving is not living.”

Jasmina Kelemen is a former Houston journalist living in Caracas.

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