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Starved Out of Venezuela

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Starved Out of Venezuela

Millions are fleeing their oil-rich South American home in search of food and stability.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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After securing the Venezuelan presidency with 50.6 percent of the vote in 2013, Nicolas Maduro pledged: “I am ensuring the legacy of my commander, [the then-deceased predecessor Hugo] Chavez, the eternal father.”

More than a year from when those words were uttered, the true “legacy” of Chavez’s social revolution was already well underway: a ghastly economic collapse that is now worse than the Great Depression in the United States during the 1930s.

Dropping oil revenues—realize that the nation holds the largest oil reservoirs on Earth—and poor fiscal management has led to vast national debt accrual and the world’s highest hyperinflation.

Mr. Maduro is pushing for radical economic restructuring, including the recent inception of oil-backed “petro” cryptocurrency, and November’s introduction of a 100,000 bolivar paper bill.

“The International Monetary Fund estimates an economic contraction of 15%, which means that by the end of 2018 the economy will be half of what it was in 2013” The Wall Street Journal reported. “And inflation will hit 13,000%.”

The paper added: “One U.S. dollar now fetches around 236,000 bolivars on the street, around 80 times what it bought at the start of last year. Five years ago, that could buy a small apartment; now it barely covers an appetizer at lunch.”

A BBC video from February 2018 titled “Begging for food in Venezuela” shows how the most vulnerable were impacted in the last five years: “The economic collapse has left an unsettling sight [the commentator stated]: extremely thin children who don’t know when they’ll eat next,” as the video displays two skinny girls playing outside.

An interviewer asked the mother, “Do you know what you will eat tomorrow?” She replied, “No idea,” while holding another baby in her arms.

The clip went on to show a child named Moises, who looks like “a newborn, but he’s two,” Lilliana, who “looks like she’s two, but she’s 5,” and a 4-to-5-year-old looking Jose, who is “almost eight,” due to stunting.

Venezuelans on average lost 24 pounds of body weight in 2017, according to an annual university study and estimates by the country’s opposition-led National Assembly, reported on by Reuters.

Another story by the same news organization showed footage of dire conditions in a local zoo in the state of Zulia, which “may have sacrificed emaciated animals and fed them to healthier ones as the country struggles with chronic food shortages, zoo workers report.

“The chaotic collapse of the country has created chronic food shortages that have fueled malnutrition and left millions seeking food anywhere they can find it, including in trash cans and dumpsters.”

Such images were unthinkable back in the 1970s, around the time of the nationalization of Venezuela’s oil industry. Back then, the phrase ta’barato dame dos! (it’s cheap, give me two!) became popularized among many Venezuelans, referring to how they would travel abroad and buy double the things they liked.

Yet the nation’s riches were fleeting, like a lottery winner who still manages to wind up poor.

These days, the Venezuelan minimum wage is hovering around $3. Yet that is not per hour or even per day—that is pay for a month! The dreadful conditions in the country are driving an exodus that is destabilizing the South American nation of nearly 32 million as well as surrounding nations.

Political Repression

Venezuela’s dangerous political climate is another factor in people’s decision to leave. “In May 2017, thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to protest the humanitarian crisis and the political changes after socialist President Nicolas Maduro stripped the opposition-ruled Congress of power,” Deutsche Welle stated.

“I marched several times, and each day police forces were more repressive,” a woman told the paper. “A policeman shot my brother-in-law at point-blank range with a pellet. I couldn’t leave my office to help him because police were shooting at passers-by.”

The news outlet continued: “In November 2017, the NGOs Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Penal Forum published a joint report on the human rights violations committed by Venezuelan armed forces during the protests last May and in the months that followed. Tear gas, water cannon and pellets were systematically used. The rubber pellets were often even filled with marbles, broken glass or metal bolts to cause injury and pain.

“The protests were repressed more brutally than before,” a senior HRW Americas researcher told Deutsche Welle. “Just look at the numbers: In 2014, 43 people died in the protests and 800 were injured. In 2017, 124 people died and 2,000 were injured.”

The same article continued: “The HRW report also mentions several cases of torture in detention centers. It says men, women and teenagers were subjected to electric shocks, ruthless beatings, sexual abuse and asphyxiation and detained along with dozens of others in small, unventilated cells with a minimum amount of water and food.”

Freedom of speech has also been significantly suppressed. According to Nieman Reports: “In the 18 years since Hugo Chavez came to power, winning an election six years after he led an unsuccessful military coup to overthrow centrist president Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, five television channels have been closed and nine removed from cable television subscription services; 62 radio stations have gone off the air because of official prohibitions; and the government has fined media outlets 32 times.”

Local journalists have resorted to unconventional means to spread news as a way to counteract censorship. An example is the popularization of “El Bus TV,” in which a handful of journalists deliver news to passengers while riding the city bus, one of them holding a makeshift carboard TV screen around the “news anchor” who speaks.

South American Refugees

When hearing the term “refugee crisis,” most think of Syria or South Sudan, not Venezuela. How could that be? Not here in the Western Hemisphere, the thinking may go.

In February, CNBC reported that though Syria’s civil war resulted in what has been called the world’s largest refugee crisis, another humanitarian calamity may soon surpass it.

“The millions of Venezuelans fleeing their turmoil-hit nation could eventually overshadow the number of Syrian refugees, according to an economist.

“The next refugee crisis is not being driven by a violent war but by a socioeconomic disaster of magnitudes hardly seen before,” Dany Bahar, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, said referring to Venezuela.

While observers may still be hesitant to refer to the migration as a “crisis,” several neighboring nations that are feeling the weight of upwards of 4 million people who have fled Venezuela would.

For instance, Colombian deportation operations—after suspending temporary visas for Venezuelans—“are sending as many as 100 migrants a day back to Venezuela,” The Washington Post stated. The article described how a woman named Andie “was detained by police, [and] they loaded her onto a truck. About 15 minutes later, she and three dozen other migrants were released at a border bridge swarming with mosquitoes.

“One by one, the migrants walked back toward Venezuela as the Colombian officers watched. And then only Andie was left.

“‘You have to go,’ said a female officer. More than a dozen Colombian officers surrounded the thin Venezuelan.

“‘I can’t,’ Andie said, her voice breaking. ‘Please. I’m pregnant, and we won’t survive there.’

“The officer paused.

“‘I’m sorry, honey, but you need to go back.’

“Andie nodded, then turned. Sobbing and clutching her stomach, she walked across the bridge.”

This anecdote represents a reversal from the 1970s and 80s when many Colombians fled to Venezuela in search for jobs, security and stability.

Other countries taking a large influx of Venezuelan expats include Brazil, Peru, Curacao, Trinidad, Spain and the United States. To complicate matters, this is happening at a time in which several of these countries impacted, particularly within South America, are either facing their own internal challenges, or an election year. Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela itself, among others, are all holding elections in 2018. No doubt, the Venezuelan diaspora will be a sensitive topic in these campaigns. This is significant because some leaders who currently support receiving more Venezuelans may be replaced, while some who are reluctant to the influx may remain in power.

The logistic, political, health, and economic ramifications of assimilating such large numbers are yet to be fully seen.

Famed Social Program Harmed

Another area hit by the problems in Venezuela is its world-renowned music program: El Sistema.

In an interview at the music network’s headquarters in the capital Caracas, executive director Eduardo Mendez said the program must overcome the crippling economic crisis that has forced hundreds of musicians to leave the country.

El Sistema is one of Venezuela’s showpiece government-run programs boasting around 300 music schools that connect children, many of modest means, with classical music. It has also produced a crop of world-renowned musicians, including Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel.

Executive director Eduardo Mendez told The Associated Press that 8 percent of the program’s teachers have recently left the country to seek a better life abroad. The network’s marquee Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra has lost 42 percent of its musicians over the past six months, though most of the vacancies have been filled with younger musicians.

“It hasn’t been easy to convince people to stay,” Mr. Mendez said. “Many of these people are leaving in search of economic stability.”

But Mr. Mendez will also have to avoid conflicts with El Sistema’s benefactor, Venezuela’s socialist government. The state has been accused by critics of using the music program as a propaganda tool.

Tensions between El Sistema and Venezuelan officials surfaced last year when Gustavo Dudamel criticized actions by President Nicolas Maduro that led to the installation of a constituent assembly dominated by government supporters. This is seen by critics as another step toward dictatorship.

Mr. Maduro asked Mr. Dudamel to “not attack those of us who have been crucial to the expansion of the [musical] movement.”

Shortly after the heated exchange, Venezuelan officials suspended two tours by El Sistema ensembles through the United States and Asia, which were going to be conducted by Mr. Dudamel. No explanation was given for the cancellations.

Intervention Underway

About a half million Venezuelans are estimated to have fled their country between 2016 and 2017. The Council on Foreign Relations stated: “Observers have characterized the situation in Venezuela as a humanitarian crisis. In 2016, the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation estimated that 85 percent of basic medicines were unavailable or difficult to obtain. Hospitals lack supplies like antibiotics, gauze, and soap. Infant mortality in 2016 increased 30 percent and maternal mortality 65 percent over two years prior, according to government figures. Diseases like diphtheria and malaria, previously eliminated from the country, have reemerged.

“Poverty has also spiked. In 2016, a local university study found that more than 87 percent of the population said it did not have enough money to buy necessary food. Another study found that 30 percent of school-aged children were malnourished. According to a 2016 report from Human Rights Watch, the Maduro administration ‘has vehemently denied the extent of the need for help and has blocked an effort by the opposition-led National Assembly to seek international assistance.’”

At the March G20 summit in Argentina, senior officials of several nations proposed that international lending institutions such as the International Monetary Fund move to help governments affected by the flood of Venezuelans fleeing their crisis-wracked homeland, Argentina’s Finance Ministry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan gas prices remain the cheapest in the world. But what good is filling up your motorcycle if you cannot fill up your stomach?

There is no simple answer to Venezuela’s worsening crisis and to stopping the mass departure of its people. Too much damage has been done. The legacy of its leadership system has been disastrous.

Guido Nunez-Mujica, the founder of Salto, an organization that has helped a number of people leave Venezuela told TED Fellows: “I am very pessimistic about Venezuela. I see no solution. The government is made up of people who retain power by using fear and hunger as political tools…The country’s oil production capacity is down. Maybe by the time we have a change of government, sustainable power will have displaced fossil fuels in many areas, and the income from oil will be very small compared to now. There will be suffering, there will be mass death, there will be famine.

“There is not a lot I can do. I cannot solve this situation. No individual can…Mass emigration out of Venezuela has already started. We aim to help as many people as we can so they can also help others. In the future, we will have Venezuelans in many places doing well, educated and prosperous, ready to rebuild when the time comes.”

“I see no solution.” This pessimistic outlook is truly bad news for the country’s downtrodden citizens today. They desperately need good news—a message of a positive change and a prosperous future.

Few know that there is very good news coming! It is hidden from mankind today because it is wrapped up in little-understood biblical term: the gospel.

This Bible term simply means “good news.” Far from being an archaic message to people of ancient times or just to those who profess to be Christians, it actually involves awesome solutions to the problems plaguing the world.

Read What Is the Kingdom of God? to learn the best news Venezuelans—and the entire world—could ever hear.

This article contains information from The Associated Press.


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