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On A Steep Venezuelan Hill, Mudslides Can Be Deadly

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And next we visit a Venezuelan hillside. Political and economic chaos in that country has made life for the poor even harder than it was. And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, they already faced a steep climb.

MARIA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: When Maria Rodriguez goes to bed at night, she worries about rain. She lives with her three small children on a steep hillside. Their home's a shack, built by her husband from scraps of wood.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Rodriguez worries there will be a mudslide, and they will be swept down the slope and die. That sometimes happens to people here. Rodriguez says when rain's forecast...

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...She takes the family to sleep at her mom's place - on flatter ground.

Being Venezuelan and poor is very hard right now. It's harder still if you live here in the vertical world of the hillside slums of west Caracas. The Rodriguez family's tiny shack is on a hill so steep that many cars can't climb it. Lose your footing on the dirt path leading to their front door and you'll tumble a long way down.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Maria Rodriguez has trained her little kids to tread very carefully. That's what good parents do in this vertical world.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Rodriguez tries to give her family two basic meals a day, but it's a huge struggle. Her husband, Jubel, has been laid off. Venezuela has acute food shortages. The family mostly can't afford what is available because the currency has crashed. They're turning to the hillside to survive.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Maria Rodriguez points down the hill.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "There was a garbage dump down there," she says. Her husband's cleared the land to grow corn, peppers, tomatoes and bananas. The family's so hungry she cooks the bananas long before they ripen. Rodriguez says many in this vertical world are returning to the land.

Jose Hernandez is a few yards down the path pulling up plants to feed his handful of chickens. Hernandez says, these days, he depends on their eggs plus whatever he can grow here on the hill.

JOSE HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Root vegetables and bananas. Hernandez is a 60-year-old retired small businessman. He turned to the hillside after his pension became almost worthless and his weight started dropping.

HERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) I weighed more than 220 pounds five years ago. Right now I weigh 160, 170 pounds.

REEVES: Working these steep slopes is not easy. Diabetes has made Hernandez almost blind.

HERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) From where you are, I can't recognize you. I can see shapes, nothing else.

REEVES: The other day he tripped and fell, gashing his leg. A friend now helps him garden and splits the produce. These Caracas hill slums used to be a heartland of support for Venezuela's leftist government. But after weeks of protests that have left dozens dead, President Nicolas Maduro is losing ground, even in these areas. Everyone around here is angry with Maduro, says Hernandez. Hernandez is getting tired of the daily quests for food.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "I hope God takes me," he says. Until then, he says he'll have to carry on surviving with whatever he can grow in his vertical world. Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMIAK'S "TENUOUS GEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.