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One family's tragic tale: their story became a symbol of the nation's collapse: after three days with no food, the family was growing weak.

Kevin Lara Lugo, the 16-year-old boy who died from eating foraged food to ward off starvation, lived in Maturin, a once-prosperous oil boomtown in northern Venezuela.

His mother, Yamilet Lugo, worked at a cutlery factory until it shut down in May 2016, unable to get the raw materials to make plastic. It joined many factories across the country that have gone idle.

Then came the next blow. Jose Rafael Castro, Yamilet Lugo's boyfriend and the only other breadwinner in the household, came home with bad news: The construction supply factory where he worked making cinder blocks had let him go because the owners could no longer find cement.

That left the family unable to buy what little food was available. First, they ate mangoes. By summer, the family had turned to yuca, a common root vegetable, which grew in a plot owned by a relative a short bus ride away.

"This was our food morning, noon, and night," Yamilet Lugo says. By July, there was no money even for the bus fare to the field, so they looked elsewhere. By July 25, the day before Kevin's birthday, the family hadn't eaten in three days and everyone was growing weak.

Kevin and Castro heard about an abandoned field a 45-minute walk from their home where other neighbors had been foraging for bitter yuca. But bitter yuca is dangerous to eat because, unlike regular yuca, it contains toxins. The plant can be dried to extract the toxins, which they tried to do.

"We had nothing else to eat," Castro says.

The gamble didn't pay off. By 11:30 p.m., the bitter yuca was making the family very sick. Kevin had collapsed. An hour passed before they found a neighbor's car to take him to the hospital.

But the hospital could offer little help. Bitter yuca intoxication is treated primarily with stomach pumping and intravenous solutions. Like so many clinics throughout the country, the one in Maturin had run out of basic supplies, leaving the family to haggle with black-market sellers as Kevin's condition worsened. Kevin's family says he waited for hours in the crowded halls of the hospital before he was even examined.

Finally, another family with extra bottles of the intravenous solution gave two to Kevin, but it was too late. By 4:45 on the morning of his birthday, he was dead.

Staring at Kevin's grave, with his name crudely etched in wet concrete by a friend's fingertip, his aunt, Lilibeth Diaz, summed up the tragedy of her family and her nation. "This boy," she said, "dies this way for no reason at all."

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Title Annotation:Venezuela
Author:Casey, Nicholas
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:3VENE
Date:May 15, 2017
Previous Article:Venezuela in crisis: with its economy in free fall and a government looking more and more like a dictatorship, Venezuela is on the brink of disaster.
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