Food, clothes for poor in not-so-merry Christmas for Venezuela

Caracas (AFP) - Joel Rodriguez, a one legged panhandler, bursts into tears as a young man dressed as Santa Claus gives him food and clothing -- a rare scene of holiday cheer in economically-depressed Venezuela.

"Sometimes we eat out of the garbage," said Rodriguez, who uses a wheel chair. "But God always puts angels in our path and you are the angels of Christmas," he adds, then starts weeping.

Around him, youths dressed up as elves or clowns or wearing Christmas hats cried along with him, cheered with joy and hugged Rodriguez.

They are volunteers of a program called "Santa in the Streets," founded 12 years ago to distribute gifts before Christmas to the poorest people in Caracas and elsewhere in Venezuela.

In a Caracas with no Christmas lights or decorations this year because of the economic crisis, Santa and his helpers handed out food, medicine, clothing and toys to children, older people and the homeless.

The presents were a sign of the times: Venezuelans are enduring acute shortages of food and medicine, and inflation is forecast by the IMF to hit a staggering 2,349 percent in 2018.

"We bring happiness to many people who in this situation are deeply sad and desperate. We bring them a little bit of happiness," said Francisco Ordaz, who has worked with the program for four years.

- 'The Maduro diet' -

Ordaz was working folding clothes under a large canopy in a church parking lot along with hundreds of men, women and children sorting toys or making ham and cheese sandwiches.

Reggaeton music blared to cheer the volunteers, and then men dressed as Santa led caravans of cars out into the city hand out the goodies.

"That Santa was hit by the crisis. Hey, Santa, are you doing the Maduro diet?" people shouted in the poor downtown area of La Pastora upon seeing a young man in the back of a truck.

They were using a popular expression used to refer to President Nicolas Maduro and people who have lost weight because of the hard economic times. This is so common it has been documented by Venezuelan universities.

Once, Maduro himself tried to use the expression jokingly on TV and drew scathing criticism.

As the caravan moved on, few people were out on the street with just a week to go until Christmas.

- 'Give us food' -

Some lined up to withdraw money from ATM machines -- cash is also scare these days -- or shop in supermarkets.

Most ignored the shouts of Merry Christmas from the volunteer Santas, and few returned the greeting.

At one point an elderly lady in worn clothing shouted to Santa, "give us food!" and another gestured as if she were putting food in her mouth.

Kids did greet the caravan and also asked for food. Only a few wanted toys.

The program "aims to join forces and take support to vulnerable people, whether they are in a community, a shelter, a nursing home or out in the streets," said Carlos Deveer, its founder.

Twelve years ago he and three friends got together to distribute food and clothes before Christmas. Today the program boasts more than 1,300 volunteers.

Rodriguez, the man in the wheel chair, thanked his benefactors.

"May God bless you and give you health," he said, holding a sandwich and a soft drink.

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