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Homeless kids, tragic bank queues and surgery by phone light as ITV News sees human cost of oil-rich Venezuela's crisis

There is an obvious irony in seeing cars queuing for petrol around the block in a country that has the world’s largest oil reserves.

But that is precisely the situation in Maracaibo, western Venezuela. This town was built on oil.

It is the Houston of Venezuela, yet Zulia is one of the worst-affected province in the current economic crisis.

There are widespread power cuts, water no longer flows to many households, food is scarce and crime is prevalent.

What was once a bustling, prosperous city is now dangerous and quiet.

Residents wait in line to take out their drastically devalued money before it is too late. Credit: ITV News

But residents are forced out most days to queue up at banks to withdraw any cash they can.

Recently the currency was devalued; the government lopping five zeros off the old Venezuelan Bolivar and replacing it with the Soberano.

The only value of outdated Venezuelan Bolivares is now as decorative origami. Credit: ITV News

The government of President Nicolás Maduro claims this new tangible currency is underpinned by a so-called crypto-currency called the Petro, which in turn is underwritten by Venezuela’s vast oil wealth.

But most analysts say it won’t stop the record hyperinflation, currently predicted to top a million per cent this year.

1m
The percentage rate of Venezuela's hyperinflation predicted to be reached in 2018

Venezuela's oil production is in free fall, with it expected to hit a low of 1.1 million barrels a day this year. It’s already at a 50-year low.

Everyone we talk to blames government mismanagement.

While there might be some residual affection for previous President Hugo Chavez, current incumbent Maduro is reviled by many.

Former bus driver Nicolás Maduro, right, was hand-picked as Hugo Chavez's successor. Credit: AP

The former bus driver is blamed for continuing to meddle in the running of the state oil producer PDVSA, stripping it of assets and money to fund social programmes.

In doing so he, and those who came before him, have almost killed the goose which laid the golden egg.

We saw evidence of the chronic underinvestment in the oil infrastructure at Lake Maracaibo just outside the city, where machinery and boats are half submerged in a port that is silent and still.

A dead fish lies as a victim of the crude oil leakage. Credit: ITV News

Because many of the wells have been left to decay, crude oil is leaking into the lake, causing an environmental catastrophe.

And because the oil revenues are dwindling essential services are crumbling as well.

There have been numerous protests here but the government has cracked down hard on dissent.

The signs of dissent are clear despite a government crackdown. Credit: ITV News

Now people are afraid to take to the streets, judging the risk of arrest and the chance of being robbed as two good reasons to stay at home and tough it out.

Gladys de Briceño is typical of the long-suffering residents of Maracaibo.

She hasn’t had any water in her house for six weeks.

Gladys de Briceño's pension now goes on emergency water deliveries. Credit: ITV News

Instead she has to pay for tanker deliveries, which eat into her already diminished savings and pension.

Like everyone we meet here, she is courteous and kind, but exasperated with the situation.

“Caotico” (chaotic) is a word we hear again and again from residents.

I find Jesi Alvarado filling up containers at one of the few working mains water pipes in the street.

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He complains they have to get water like this every day.

"It’s unacceptable," he told me. "We need water, food. This is chaotic, we don’t have electricity either."

Faced with such hardships many Venezuelans have decided to leave for neighbouring countries like Colombia.

Queues for the pump in the oil-rich nation now in the throes of collapse. Credit: ITV News

We watched them streaming through an illegal crossing on overladen trucks heading towards the Colombian town of Riohacha, one of many where the fleeing seek refuge.

Erin Burgos is only 20 years old and chose to cross legally.

She told me in Maracaibo: "There is no light, no food, no work."

Young mother Erin Burgos said she can no longer afford to buy her young son school shoes. Credit: ITV News

She left so she can support her three-year-old son.

Right now she can’t even afford to buy him a new pair of school shoes.

Most end up on the streets, getting by, however they can.

Impoverished families are forced to live on the streets. Credit: ITV News

Jose Contreras loiters at a busy intersection in Riohacha cleaning car windscreens for a few pence a time.

He just about makes enough to feed himself and his family.

He tells me Venezuela is such a rich country with minerals and oil, yet his children are living on the streets, with no food and no shoes.

This week President Maduro was videoed tucking into juicy cuts of meat cooked by a celebrity chef in a top restaurant in Istanbul.

The empty shelves in Venezuelan supermarkets contrasted sharply with the president's high-priced dining experience in Turkey. Credit: ITV News/Instagram albertorodnews

The contrast couldn’t have been greater between his lavish meal and the empty supermarket shelves in most supermarkets inside Venezuela.

According to a UN report published last week, more than 3.7 million Venezuelans, or 12 per cent of the population, are undernourished.

3.7m
The number of Venezuelans undernourished
11kg
The average body weight lost by most Venezuelans in the last year

Two thirds of Venezuelans said they had lost an average of 11kg in body weight in the previous 12 months. And it shows.

In the bank queues, many people look gaunt and haggard.

The Venezuelans lining up for days outside banks display clean signs of weight loss. Credit: ITV News

They have endured months of worsening shortages and seen the value of their money eroded.

One woman told me that in the last two weeks five people had died while queuing up to get their pensions.

It is a pitiful situation which gains little international attention, but one which surely cannot last much longer.

There are reports of US President Donald Trump’s officials having met Venezuelan generals plotting a coup.

This mother and her newborn baby and other children must move on after a brief time in sheltered accommodation. Credit: ITV News

And there has already been a botched assassination attempt on President Maduro’s life using explosive-carrying drones during a military parade.

But he survived and afterwards claimed it was part of a right-wing plot involving Colombia and the United States.

His supporters cling to the notion he is protecting Venezuela from destabilising outside forces and the current problems are part of a US-backed conspiracy to stop his socialist reforms.

Maduro also insists that US-backed sanctions are one of the main reasons behind the country's struggling economy.

But many inside Venezuela no longer buy that.

The lack of electricity leaves doctors performing surgery to the light of a mobile phone. Credit: ITV News

They blame Maduro’s own policies for crashing the economy, discouraging outside investment and crippling ordinary Venezuelans.

Many are voting with their feet; 2.3 million have left so far, about seven per cent of the population.

It is the largest exodus in modern Latin American history and one that is now affecting countries across the region.

Venezuelans left with effectively nothing cling on to their last hope: getting out alive. Credit: ITV News