"Anybody who has had a decent breakfast is now a part of a privileged few. The huge majority of the people are hungry. To have three meals a day is now a luxury."

Father John Jennings is a Missionary of the Sacred Heart from Cork, working in one of the most marginalised neighbourhoods, or barrios, in Caracas. He is speaking to us from his home on the western slopes of the capital.

Fr John Jennings lives on the western slopes of Caracus

Venezuela is the size of France and Germany combined and has a population of 32 million, which is down significantly thanks to forced emigration.

"Up to five million people have fled the country.. there are far fewer young people around... it must be comparable to the emigration from Ireland around the Famine."

Every day, unbearable living conditions push more Venezuelans across the border. Transit centres run by humanitarian or church organisations can ease the early stages of an arduous journey. Some young mothers will give birth in those camps before continuing on their way, with thousands of kilometres on foot ahead.

Venezuela has been gripped by crisis for the past decade, beginning during the presidency of Hugo Chavez, and escalating under his successor Nicolás Maduro. Maduro's controversial victory in 2018 triggered a constitutional crisis, with the leader of the opposition Juan Guaidó declaring himself interim president, garnering immediate support from the US and dozens of other countries.

Less than a year later, Maduro has defied the odds and consolidated his position, while Guaidó's failure to gain military support has seen his momentum stall. With unrest engulfing Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, the focus in the region has shifted away from Caracas. While US sanctions remain in place, international pressure has eased. Ironically, the millions of Venezuelans driven from their country have proved to be a boon to the administration; they are sending billions of dollars to relatives back home. The hard left government is unofficially easing back on currency controls, allowing the wider use of dollars, which is helping a business sector stunned by a shattered economy.

When we speak John is expecting his "bolso", a government handout of low cost food, distributed to low income households in an effort to counter the impact of US sanctions - and bolster political support.

"It's quite common to see really poor people rummaging in the garbage on the street side, and eating the half decomposed food that other people are throwing out. It is really striking, the abject poverty of some people," he says.

People rummaging through rubbish in Caracas to find food 

Research findings back this up. In a recent study, almost two-thirds of Venezuelans said they had shed almost a kilo a month in body weight for the previous year. Nine out of ten households are living in poverty. The conditions have been compared to a war economy, with a fortunate few able to buy whatever they want, while the vast majority is pushed into poverty.

"Just lately people are coming to the door asking for water," John explains, as a water crisis grips the capital. People across the vast country live with daily blackouts, lasting up to four hours. "The country is very seriously broken down," he says.

It's an appalling situation for a once wealthy country. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world; more even than Saudi Arabia. The mismanagement of its wealth is apparent in the daily queues for petrol, with people waiting for hours to fill the tank almost everywhere outside the capital.

Hyper inflation hit the economy like a cyclone, peaking at hundreds of thousands of percent, but is gradually beginning to ease. President Maduro routinely hikes the mandatory minimum wage - increasing it ten times in the past two years - as the cost of basic items climb out of the reach of many people. In his 45 years in the country, John has never seen anything like it.

"It's the first time we've hit galloping hyperinflation...prices are changing almost daily."

When John arrived in Venezuela in 1974, as Richard Nixon was being forced from the White House, four bolivares (the local currency) bought you a dollar. Earlier this year, it took 20,000 bolivares to buy a kilo of cheese. A few months ago that had climbed to 50,000. Now a local shop is charging 130,000 bolivares. The latest minimum monthly wage is 300,000 bolivares; half of that is made up of a "food bonus", which just about covers that kilo of cheese. In a desperate move, the government has taken to periodically changing its currency, making one new bolivar worth a thousand of the old version. But its value continues to evaporate in the heat of the ongoing crisis which tearing the economy to bits, and with it, the lives of so many Venezuelans.

Worthless bolivar banknotes torn up and discarded on the street of the capital

Like much of the country's infrastructure, the roads are in a state of abject disrepair. John was driving at 4.30am, "heading up the hillside", when his wheel nearly disappeared into one of many massive potholes. "It was like driving through a minefield, if you like," he says.

But there is always hope. He had been up so early to celebrate an Advent mass in a poorer area, where Andean local beliefs and Christianity mix in a "rich and colourful" way, which includes plenty of fireworks and music. "Venezuelans are great family people," he says. The main celebration take place on Christmas Eve, with New Year's another big family occasion.

"There are grounds for seriously questioning if we are living in a proper democracy," John says, and observes that while many Venezuelans are disillusioned, they are a resilient people, and have learned to be patient.

Next year, the country is due to have parliamentary elections, with many still holding to the belief that change is possible. "There is some movement toward dialogue, on the government and opposition sides, as everybody sees the terrible situation the country is in."